DETROIT — In the wake of a reported teenage hookup turned tragedy in Huron Township, legal experts and victims-rights advocates say the state’s criminal sexual conduct laws should be reconsidered because the laws can hurt teens more than society benefits.
"There must be a better way of dealing with these cases" of sexually active teenagers, said Gail Benson, a Beverly Hills, Calif., attorney who has extensive experience in representing defendants charged with criminal sexual assaults.
Teens today, she said, are living in a highly sexualized society.
"If kids are having sex at 14 and we can’t stop them, should we be criminalizing them?" Benson asked, also querying whether it’s good public policy to use felony offenses to "protect a 15-year-old girl against a 16-year-old boy."
And social media postings and cell phone snapshots don’t help, Benson said.
"Kids don’t even know how to keep it private," she said. "They don’t understand the illegality and the risk."
In the Huron Township case, 18-year-old Joseph Tarnopolski first talked with 14-year-old Samantha Kelly on MySpace. The two were in a math class together at Huron High School. Both told police they had consensual sex Sept. 26 at his home a few doors down from hers in a mobile home park.
Tarnopolski claims he thought Samantha was 16, but under Michigan law Samantha, at age 14, was not permitted to make such decisions and he was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct.
On Oct. 18, with her mother at her side, Samantha appeared in a local TV news report in which she accused Tarnopolski of forcibly raping her — which contradicted her written statement to police.
After going through ridicule and harassment at school, Samantha hanged herself in her bedroom Monday night. On Wednesday, prosecutors said they had to dismiss the case against Tarnopolski because there was no longer a complaining witness to bring the charges.
Beth Morrison, president and CEO of HAVEN, a Pontiac-based shelter and counseling center for victims of domestic abuse, said the state’s criminal sexual conduct laws should get another look from the Legislature to evaluate whether what is on the books works with today’s societal realities.
Age, maturity, vulnerability, experience and education are all variables that make evaluating the laws and these cases so complicated, she said.
"The closer in age the individuals are, the more we grapple with whether or not this is a CSC or not," Morrison said.
She also said teens need to be educated by their parents and schools about the laws and responsible sexual behavior.
Former Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga, now in private practice, said he tried to use discretion when deciding whether to file charges when two teenagers are close in age.
He said because of the quirks of the law, "you can get into an instance of two 15-year-olds being involved with each other and you can charge them both — and that doesn’t make sense."
The ongoing struggle, Marlinga said, is between morality and criminal law.
"Sex at 16, while it’s morally wrong, do you saddle a young man with a criminal conviction and 25 years on the sex offender registry because of something he did with his girlfriend?"
On Thursday, Kevin Roseborough, assistant news director for the TV station, told the Free Press: "We feel tremendous sadness for Samantha’s death."
He said June Justice, Samantha’s mother, e-mailed the station wanting help for her daughter, who she said was being harassed at school.
Roseborough said the station chose to put the girl and her mother, who was identified, on camera and blurred Samantha’s face to protect her identity.
Although her statements to police contradicted her interview with the news outlet, Roseborough said Samantha claimed the police report was wrong. He declined to discuss whether the news outlet would have done anything differently or whether the station was comfortable with its decisions in the wake of Samantha’s suicide.
"I don’t know if there is ever a simple explanation for suicide or a way to fix blame," Roseborough said.
Marlinga said the first rule for victims in criminal sexual conduct cases: "Stay away from the media. If you think you are going to get some sort of satisfaction or retribution, you are sadly mistaken."
Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, said Samantha and her mother were told that her appearance in the news segment could negatively affect her case.
"That was certainly something that was going to be an issue," she said.
On Thursday, tensions in the mobile home park were still high as a group gathered to protest bullying.
"We can’t even go home," Tarnopolski’s father, Joe Tarnopolski, said Thursday. He said the harassment is getting worse.