Rape Charges Dropped After 14-Year-Old Accuser Commits Suicide

by Cara on November 11, 2010

in assholes, bigotry, courts, media, misogyny, patriarchy, rape and sexual assault, sexual exploitation and harassment, violence against women and girls

Screen shot of Samantha Kelly, a pale, young teenage woman with long brown hair. She wears a yellow tee-shirt while tilting her head and looking into the camera.

Trigger Warning for discussions of suicide, sexual violence, rape apologism, victim-blaming, and bullying.

Near Detroit, rape charges have been dropped against 18-year-old Joseph Tarnopolski, following the suicide of his 14-year-old alleged victim Samantha Kelly.

A 34th District Court judge dismissed a rape case against an 18-year-old man who was charged with having sex with a 14-year-old girl who killed herself Monday.

Judge Brian Oakley dismissed the case following a brief argument after the hearing that the prosecutor’s office did not have sufficient evidence to proceed.

“Under the law we did not have sufficient evidence to prove that a crime had occurred without the testimony of the victim. As a result, we had to move to dismiss the case. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victim’s family at this difficult time,” the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement.

Samantha Kelly killed herself Monday after family members said students at Huron High School harassed her after learning of the charges against Joseph Tarnopolski, also a student at Huron High.

While the decision to drop prosecution efforts adds another layer of tragedy to one that is already of unbearable proportions, my scorn here is not actually directed at the prosecutors. Most rape cases rely heavily on victim testimony. And unfortunately, they no longer have it. If it were to emerge that the prosecution has access to significant other evidence that a rape occurred and are still declining to prosecute, I’d revise my opinion. But with what we know now, it’s unlikely that they are to blame.

My scorn is reserved for rapists, and just as much for those who support rapists with apologism, victim-blaming, and harassment. My scorn is reserved for those who not only fail to protect and support victims of assault, but who actively bully them. My scorn is reserved for those who decided that Samantha Kelly was a liar, chose to shout that belief from the rooftops, and actively opted to make her life a living hell.

The case itself is a particularly complicated one. The charges themselves were for statutory rape, and originally both Kelly and Tarnopolski said that the decision to “have sex” was “mutual.” Later, however, Kelly publicly recanted her earlier statements and claimed that Tarnopolski had coerced her, and that she did not consent. Kelly is dead now, and so it’s impossible to do more than speculate about why she first told one story and then changed it to another, or to know which version of the events was true. What’s relevant is that before she made her second set of allegations, the harassment was “limited” to Tarnopoloski — who fanned the flames on Twitter with statements like “All girls are, are liars and backstabbers! I hate you all. Way to ruin my life. Seriously, now this will be on my record for life!” — and his friends. After she made the second set of allegations — on local television — it was widespread among the entire school.

It seems that for once, school officials actually tried to support the accuser and discipline the bullies. But they were unable to halt the violence and harassment:

Factions soon developed. The day of his arraignment, a number of students at school wore shirts supporting him and others wrote “Joe’s Innocent” on their hands until school officials intervened.

Two kids were suspended for 10 days, Huron School District Superintendent Richard Naughton said.

Another student was disciplined for hitting Samantha with a clump of mud he pulled off his shoe.

Samantha tried to commit suicide Oct. 25 by taking pills, her mother said. She underwent treatment, and did not return to school until Monday.

The principal said he met with Samantha’s mom several times, including Monday morning. Justice talked about changing her daughter’s school, but Samantha said she wanted to stay, Rowe said.

Samantha was given a principal’s pass, which allowed her to get out of class with no questions asked if anything happened, and she was asked to report concerns about behavior to the school, Rowe said. She reported two incidents, which the school investigated, and one student was suspended.

I don’t know whether or not the school could have done more after the violence and verbal bullying started, but I do know that all of us need to a do a lot more before it starts. Few of us, adult and adolescent alike, know how to deal with rape allegation in our communities. Few of us know how to adequately support alleged victims. Few of us know just how few rape allegations are false, and that the narrative that women regularly lie about rape to get themselves out of trouble is a myth. Few of us know the reasons why a rape victim might actually lie to protect hir rapist, why sie might recant an allegation after it has been made, or why sie might originally claim that a rape was a consensual experience. Few of us understand the impact that sexual violence has on one’s mental and emotional health, and just how much rape apologism and victim-blaming tend to exacerbate it.

It is my experience both from my personal life and from talking with countless other rape survivors that the most important thing to a person who has been raped is simply to be believed. But far too rape victims currently get that. Samantha Kelly certainly didn’t get that. She got the exact opposite.

I can’t say if that’s what made Kelly decide to take her own life. None of us can say what did. But I do feel absolutely confident that whatever her reasons, the lack of support and the active bullying did not help. And it is long past time that we start preparing everyone for these kinds of situations before they occur. It is long past time that we publicly educate about how to respond to rape accusers, and the importance of treating them with dignity. It is long past time that we learn to combat bullying, and create strategies for denouncing it on a community, peer-to-peer level. It’s long past time that we make sure our communities don’t let misogyny have this kind of all-encompassing power over women’s lives.

Compounding this tragedy yet again, Samantha Kelly’s family does not have the money to pay for her funeral. Donations to defray costs for her family can be made to Michigan Memorial Funeral Home, 30895 W. Huron River Drive, Flat Rock, MI 48134. Please consider giving if you can.

h/t Sally Mercedes

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{ 2 comments }

1 Cass November 12, 2010 at 10:28 am

This is so sad, and it’s truly disgusting how brutal the other kids were. This kind of thing always makes me think that they might be in some way channeling their parents attitudes or what their family members have said about the case, because every time I’ve seen such a large group of kids that age act so senselessly brutal (gay bullying, slut shaming, etc.) it’s always something their parents have either consciously or unconsciously supported–whether it be “don’t wear that, it makes you look like a whore” or “you’re such a f*g” for the kid;s whole childhood, or in a case specifically “that slut was asking for it”.

I’ll definitely check out your link for the funeral.

I’m also somewhat disturbed about the fact that I’m surprised that the school seemed to actually handle things relatively well. I don’t know if they could have done more, but actually disciplining the bullies and attackers and getting her a pass out of class is honestly way more than I expected from any sort of state-owned institution, which is pretty disturbing in and of itself.

Anyway, thanks for the write-up, and I hope her family is able to get through this.

2 Alemana November 12, 2010 at 8:08 pm

I really do think it’s unconscionable that they’re not going ahead with prosecuting this man–at the very least, for statutory rape…it seems fairly clear we know beyond reasonable doubt that sex happened and she was 14 at the time. That should be more than enough to get him in jail for at least a few years, which he so richly deserves.

But more significantly, the fact that prosecution can be deterred by victim suicide means that our legal system has functionally decided that those people who are driven to suicide (and their families) don’t deserve justice. Our legal system just doesn’t care enough about victim’s rights to have a protocol in place for such an eventuality. This means that in practical terms, there is an *incentive* for perpetrators and their supporters/apologists to drive their victims to suicide and thereby evade punishment.

Besides, I have a really *really* hard time believing that you can’t prosecute a crime against someone when the victim is dead. You know when that’s an issue pretty frequently? MURDER. It’s not like Bob can blow Steve’s brains out, and everyone will say, “Oh, dear…without Steve here to tell us who blew his brains out, I guess we can’t possibly have enough evidence to convict Bob.” Rather, the legal system goes into evidence-collecting overdrive (unless, of course, the victim was particularly marginalized, but that’s another topic for another day) and seeks the testimony of anyone to whom the victim might have said something, written records, DNA evidence, whatever they can get their hands on.

This girl is dead. It’s pretty damned unlikely that she’s a lying whore out to ruin this guy’s reputation just for fun and her personal/economic benefit because she’s, you know, dead. This allegation was serious enough to kill her, so it seems to me that it’s important. I can’t **imagine** that this isn’t very strong evidence that what happened to her wasn’t very real and very damaging. Why can’t they use whatever deposition she’s already done, facebook/twitter posts, and whatever was shared with school officials/counselors/etc. (provided her family or whoever is serving as her executor or representative consent to have that confidential information shared)? “When there’s a will there’s a way,” and it seems like in this case, and in rape cases in general, there just doesn’t seem to be a will.

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