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