Wednesday, December 10, 2008

South Carolina Cheerleader Innocent of Raping Teen Girl

South Carolina Cheeleader Innocent of Raping Teen Girl
by Robert A. Waters

This could happen to you or me. One day, you’re leading a normal life. Then it all corkscrews into the abyss of disaster. You’re at work when cops come and arrest you for raping a child. You’re paraded in handcuffs through a gauntlet of reporters with flashing cameras and plastic smiles. The next day your face is on the front page of the papers, on the blogs, on TV. You wonder if the reporters will be there when you’re proven innocent. Or worse yet, will you be railroaded to prison for years to come?

Stephanie Gail Kirkland, 20, lived in Graniteville, South Carolina, near Aiken. She worked two part-time jobs while she attended college. She had a boyfriend, a MySpace page, and a loving, supportive family.

On August 12, 2008, police arrested her at her workplace. It came out of the blue—-they’d never even questioned her. A child at the school where she taught cheerleading had accused Kirkland of rape. She was charged with three counts of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree and four counts of lewd acts on a minor. Two things made this case even more high-voltage than most sexual offenses: Stephanie Kirkland was an attractive blue-eyed blonde and the “victim” was a thirteen-year-old girl.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Kirkland said later. “I mean it was just awful. Handcuffs and shackles, walking in front of my family...I lost nine pounds, I couldn’t eat for a week.”

Once the news got out, the accused lesbian child rapist was inundated with obscene messages on her MySpace page. Much later Kirkland explained that strangers who’d seen her picture in the news threatened “to do sexual things to me because of something I did to a little girl--that I didn’t do.” The menace of stalking and violence seemed very real because the local newspaper had published her home address.

“There was a relationship between Ms. Kirkland and the thirteen-year-old,” Lt. Michael Frank said emphatically. An article in the Aiken Standard expanded on the charges. “Investigators said that between May and December 2007, the subject sexually violated the victim, fondling her and assaulting her at Aiken Cheer Extreme, College Acres locations and several times in the victim’s bedroom.” After being approached by a relative of the girl, the paper reported that investigators “launched an investigation into the matter, which Frank explained can take several months.”

The blogosphere exploded. “Stephanie Gail Kirkland, 20, enjoys the music of Ashley Tisdale and Usher, hanging out with friends, her kitten, Chipper, and having sex with a thirteen-year-old girl,” one blogger wrote. Another assured readers that “local police say that they have enough evidence for the arrest and feel that the charges are valid and are prepared for trial on the charges.”

Then something amazing, something magnificent happened. People who had known Kirkland all her life began posting responses to the story in the online edition of the Standard. All were supportive. (While many online comments to newspapers are obviously from crackpots, a number of these posters published their real names. It was obvious that they knew the situation well.)

Here are a few of their comments:

“I think it is ridiculous that Stephanies (sic) picture is in the paper. This has ruined her reputation.”

“The sensationalized article on Kirkland was the worst thing I’ve seen this horrible, uncaring, clueless newspaper do.”

“Why is it that Stephanie was never interviewed prior to her arrest?”

“Kirkland was arrested on completely frivolous and physically impossible accusations made by a known unreliable source. This is truly scary, so much for presumed innocence.”

Many of the posters knew the accuser. “The 13 yr out of control,” someone wrote. “I have had a chance to view her myspace page and see the things that she post[ed]...which are lewd and disgusting...I know that she has accused other young girls of the same charges and they were untrue also.”

On September 26, 2008, while out on bail, Kirkland got a call from her lawyer informing her that the charges had been dropped. Aiken County Assistant Solicitor Steve Kodman said that there were multiple inconsistencies in the accuser’s statement. Trying to cover his ass, he said, “There are times where law enforcement has enough probable cause to make an arrest, but we have to be able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt to take it to court.” Even though they dropped the charges, authorities said “they have nothing that leads them to suspect the alleged victim lied.”

“It’s closed,” Lt. Frank said. “That’s the end of it.”

Well, that’s not quite the end of it. What about Stephanie Kirkland’s embarrassment at being hauled off to jail like some serial child molester? What about the statements police and prosecutors made sliming Kirkland? What about the fact that the accuser finally admitted that she made the whole thing up? Why wasn’t the accuser’s background checked in the beginning? Why is she not being charged? Since she’s not being charged, is she receiving counseling or psychiatric help?

Finally, what about the reporting of the story? Articles in newspapers are assumed by many to be the lasting public record of an event. Will the local media subpoena police reports, court documents, and other records from the case? Will they interview all participants to determine why an innocent girl was arrested before she was even questioned? Or why everyone in town seemed to know the accuser was lying except the cops? Or why many in the media blindly accepted the police version as truth? That’s the real story.

Once, after having been acquitted of sham charges of larceny and fraud, Raymond Donovan, Secretary of Labor under President Ronald Reagan, yelled at the prosecutor, “Give me back my reputation.” Later, he stated that when he was reading a newspaper article about his arrest, he thought, That’s what people will read forever.

No doubt, Stephanie Kirkland feels much the same way.

“The way it looks now,” she said, “is [that] I did something but they just can’t prove it. If I go apply for a job and they ask me if I’ve ever been arrested...they won’t ever look past ‘have you ever been arrested?’ and [they’ll] throw that [job application] out the window.”


Unknown said...

o.o it's amazing what people would do for attention, but not surprising. Poor girl and shows how fair the justice system is considering they arrested her without warning. o.o but one thing that shocked me was that the media had released her home address and how many people that were around her turned on her so fast.

Robert said...

I'm still not sure how I landed on this page, but after about reading Miss Kirkland's ordeal, I sincerely hope she has managed to recover as much of a "normal" life as possible. It's an astonishing double-standard that they privileged the claims of a girl over those of a young woman -- as if the 7 years between their ages somehow renders one truthful and the other a liar.

And I wish that the media were held to a reasonable standard so that when they libel an innocent person like this, they could be sued into oblivion. It's chilling to see how easy it can be to ruin someone's life based upon the lies of a child, and the desire of the media to push salacious claims in order to titillate their readers, and thereby raise their advertising profits.

And of course Lt. Michael Frank of Aiken County Sheriff's office ought to have lost his job for baldly claiming "There was a relationship between Ms. Kirkland and the 13-year-old" when he knew no such thing. This entire story is one of misplaced credibility, and a violation of the Constitutionally guaranteed right to the presumption of innocence for anyone charged with a crime.