Savannah’s amazing grace under fire

Sep 19, 2012 at 5:00 am

In this sparse space, it would be impossible to convey the maturity, courage and empathy of a young sexual-assault victim who prevailed despite a hostile prosecutor and a proposed penalty more suited to a frat-party teabagging. Instead, I’ll highlight some noteworthy lessons.

The nightmare transpired among three 16-year-olds in August of last year. After an evening of heavy drinking, two then-Trinity High School students partially undressed an incapacitated Savannah Dietrich and penetrated her with their fingers. Lesson: Non-consensual sexual contact is always a crime. The boys showed photos of the act to their friends (because they thought it would be funny). And that’s how Savannah learned what they did last summer. Lesson: Humiliating a victim adds insult, injury and risk.

Via text message, Savannah confronted one of the perps, who apparently couldn’t wrap his twisted mind around the emotional terrorism he had wrought. He begged her not to ruin his life in the court of justice. The most crucial apology of his life rang as hollow as a sadist’s conscience. Lesson from Will Rogers: “When you find yourself in a hole,” disgorge your cranium from your posterior and “stop digging.”

Convinced that her assailants knew better but just didn’t care, Savannah elected to press charges. Lesson: Victims brave enough to prosecute offenders through an imperfect, traumatic (and sometimes corrupt) process prevent future abuses. But justice looked elusive as the prosecution of the case resembled a locker-room gang-bang.

Savannah’s attorneys alleged that Assistant County Attorney Paul Richwalsky, a Trinity alumnus and behemoth booster, had assigned himself to the case. Savannah swore that he told her to “let it go and move on” and “get a therapist” — that “jail time was for ‘real’ rapists.”

In a rebuttal affidavit, Richwalsky called her assertions “delusional,” adding they’re “merely the byproduct of what she would like to believe happened and not what in actuality took place.” Lesson: The fancy legalese of men in suits doesn’t trump the plain English of a credible victim.

Citing the dispute and Richwalsky’s compromising ties to Trinity, Savannah’s attorneys sought to remove the county attorney’s office (and Richwalsky) from the case. Their motion failed but focused more negative attention on the Catholic boys’ high school. Lesson: Highly ethical officials don’t risk apparent or actual conflicts of interest.

It got worse when Judge Dee McDonald imposed a gag order extending beyond the juvenile court proceedings to encompass the crime — brazenly denying the victim’s reasonable free speech rights. Rather than protest on Savannah’s behalf, Richwalsky exercised his right to remain silent. Lesson for McDonald: Be smarter than a fifth-grader in matters of constitutional law.

In what proved to be a masterful act of civil disobedience, Savannah tweeted the names of her attackers. The defense went ballistic. Exercising an unwittingly self-destructive nuclear option, they filed a motion for contempt. In that pivotal moment, it was predictable, if not obvious, that the sudden possibility of jail time for the victim would spark a firestorm. Lesson for the defense: Beware of unanticipated risks and brinksmanship with savvy stalwarts.

Believe it or not, a more stringent plea agreement satisfactory to both sides emerged at a formal sentencing last Friday. Under the original offer, which offended Savannah, the boys’ records were to be expunged at age 19½. That’s off the table. Now they’ll be eligible to amend the felony to a misdemeanor at 21½. They’re required to do 50 hours of community service for the benefit of women, get therapy, and identify those to whom they showed the photos.

County Attorney Mike O’Connell’s conclusion that his office “could have done better” was an understatement. For the sake of public trust, Richwalsky should have kept an honest distance from the case. Instead, he embraced it.

For the measure of justice that transcended this mess, the community owes a debt of gratitude to Savannah’s parents, veteran attorney Tom Clay, Judge Angela McCormick Bisig and The Courier-Journal. And to Savannah, who has made a greater difference at 17 than most citizens make in a lifetime.

Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you … And then they build monuments to you.” We’re not building many monuments lately, but we’re affixing large images of our stars on buildings. I’d like to see Savannah’s eyes watching over the Hall of Justice.