Originally created 07/06/06

Consent age falls in sex crime bill



SPARTANBURG, S.C. - South Carolina's new, tougher sex offender law lowers the age of consent for sexual relationships to 14 from 16 and can give adults having sex with children that age a break if they're prosecuted.

The most-talked about part of a new law that requires lifetime electronic monitoring for sex offenders has been a provision making repeat child rapists eligible for the death penalty when their victims are younger than 11.

Both pleased victim advocates. But they're miffed about the so-called "mistake of age" defense adults would have when being prosecuted for having sex with children as young as 14 and lowering the age of consent.

The changes allows adults accused of having sex with a child younger than 16 to tell juries they believed the child was of consent age. Jurors would have to weigh that.

Adults can manipulate children who might not understand what is happening, says Marlene Evans, the victim services director of the Safe Homes Rape Crisis Coalition in Spartanburg.

"And they could manipulate a jury as well," Ms. Evans said. "When children can't trust the adults around them, the law should protect them. This doesn't; it provides a loophole."

Seventh Circuit prosecutor Trey Gowdy says that change will have a tremendous affect on prosecutions.

"I haven't heard anybody say they think this is a good idea," Mr. Gowdy said. "Most people who read the law think it only applies in cases where the victims are 14 or 15 years old, but it's ambiguous enough that some defense attorney will try to use it with victims who are 13, or 12 or younger."

Critics note the legislation was changed to include the underage sex defense with no public debate. Mr. Gowdy said that kind of crucial addition should have had a public hearing.

"There was never a single hearing on the mistake of age defense," he said. "If it goes through the process and that's what the people want, OK. But there wasn't any debate."

Rep. Murrell Smith, a Republican lawyer from Sumter and the chairman of the subcommittee handling the bill, proposed the single-sentence amendment. He wasn't sure when it was added but said many people worked on it.

"There was a flurry of bills going back and forth, and it became a nightmare to try to contain the different suggestions going into it," Mr. Smith said.

Lowering the age of consent creates problems, too, Mr. Gowdy said. The so-called "Romeo clause" means people 18 or younger can have consensual sex with someone as young as 14.

"For parents struggling to send the right message to their kids in a sex-obsessed world, the state of South Carolina now says it's all right for a 14-year-old to have sex," Mr. Gowdy said.

Ms. Evans doesn't like that change, either.

"The question is: Is a 14-year-old able to weigh the consequences and make that kind of decision?" Ms. Evans said.