Here is yet another reason why we need to place tighter controls on judicial discretion. SILSBEE, Texas — Rakheem Bolton approached the free-throw line as his school’s cheerleading squad rooted for him to hit the shot during a 2009 playoff game.
One cheerleader stepped away from the group, folded her arms and stood in silence, refusing to cheer for the star athlete who she says raped her at a party in this Southeast Texas town.
Now, two years later, that silent protest is drawing new attention across the nation as the result of an unusual series of events. Those events left the family of the victim, who was then 16, facing $45,000 in penalties from the legal proceedings that followed the incident, while her alleged attacker was freed after reduced charge plea bargain.
An online campaign is now under way to help the family with the legal costs, which were assessed by a judge who dismissed the lawsuit they filed after she was suspended as a cheerleader for her protest. The effort has gained momentum on Facebook and Twitter and collected more than $23,000. An appeal of the financial penalty is pending in federal court.
“It’s really an awful statement to send on how you treat a teenage sexual assault victim,” said Alex DiBranco, whose petition on Change.org has gathered more than 94,000 signatures asking the district to not to make the family pay the fees. DiBranco, a New York-based women’s rights advocate, got involved after reading about the case.
The girl’s allegations stem from an October 2008 party in which she claims she was pulled into a darkened room with Bolton and several others and raped under a pool table while she was drunk. Bolton and two others were arrested after the party. A grand jury declined to indict him in January 2009. A second grand jury indicted him 10 months later. Bolton eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser assault charge in a plea deal and was given a suspended one-year sentence. Charges were dropped against two others indicted in the incident.
The girl, who was reinstated to the cheerleading squad two weeks after being suspended, filed a federal lawsuit in May 2009, claiming the school district violated her First Amendment rights as well as her rights to liberty, property and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
In court documents, school officials said they were justified in punishing her, saying that at the time of the 2009 playoff game Bolton was not facing any charges. Her conduct violated school rules and her allegations appeared to be “the story of a girl who became angry with a boy about something that may or may not have happened at a private party,” the schools’ attorneys said.
U.S. District Judge Thad Heartfield in Beaumont ruled the girl’s lawsuit was “without foundation.”
“There are no facts to support a finding that the school, or its officials, owed her any additional process,” Heartfield wrote, and ordered the family to pay the district’s legal costs. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in May declined to review it, leaving the legal fees the only issue pending.
The school district remains unwilling to give the girl’s family a break on the payment. “I think the district has a fiduciary responsibility and obligation to the taxpayers to try to collect on any money that is due them,” said school board President John Griffin.
But news on the case reached sympathetic ears in others parts of the country. After reading about the case, Jessica Mills, an actress and writer in Los Angeles, started an online fundraising campaign to help pay the costs.
“I just thought this girl, she’s been through so much already, regardless of the right and wrongs and legalities of it,” said Mills, who with her friend set up the “Help the Cheerleader” web site, which lets people donate money to a bank account set up by the cheerleader’s attorney.
The girl’s father said he is humbled by the rising balance, mostly from donations of less than $20. He runs a landscaping business, and said paying the money would be a financial hardship. He said his daughter has had her ups and downs. After graduating in 2010, she took a year off and plans to attend Lamar University in Beaumont in the fall.
We here at Outlier point to this case as yet another instance of these crazy judges exercising extreme overreach in judicial discretion. This judge sided for the school district. Crazy, in our opinion, but whatever. Where he screwed up though is ruling that the case is without merit and frivolous. We've written before about how easy these judges throw around the word frivolous to justify awarding attorney fees and court costs to the other side.
To truly be frivolous, the girl would have had to believe the school could force her to hail her sexual attacker; or it had to be unreasonable for her to to believe that. Absent that, the judge was out of bounds.
Someone should ask the judge's daughter, Jennifer Heartfield Fleming; or the judge's wife, Cornelia if THEY'D be up for singing their rapist's praises.