An 18-year-old US cheerleader is facing felony charges that she had sexual contact with her underage, 14-year-old girlfriend, leading gay rights advocates to say the teen is being unfairly targeted for a common high school romance because she's gay.
The criminal case against Florida teen Kaitlyn Hunt is unusual because it involves two females, not an older male and a younger female. But advocates say older high schoolers dating their younger counterparts is an innocuous, everyday occurrence that is not prosecuted - regardless of sexual orientation - and not a crime on par with predatory sex offenses.
Hunt played on the basketball team with her younger girlfriend and shared the same circle of friends, said Hunt's mother, Kelley Hunt Smith. The two had a consenting relationship that began soon after Kaitlyn Hunt turned 18, and Hunt Smith said she assumed the younger girl's parents knew that.
But Hunt was kicked off the basketball team near the end of last year after the coach learned of the relationship because players were not allowed to date each other, her parents said. Then, in February, she was charged with lewd and lascivious battery on a child 12 to 16. The day before she was arrested, police and the younger girl's parents secretly recorded a phone conversation in which the two girls discussed kissing in the school bathroom, said Hunt's father, Steve Hunt.
"It's horrible. For my daughter's sexual preferences, she's getting two felony charges. It could possibly ruin her future," Steve Hunt told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
The alleged victim is identified only by her initials in court documents, and her parents have not been publicly identified. The AP does not identify alleged victims of sex crimes.
Kaitlyn Hunt, who hopes to become a nurse, declined to be interviewed and is scared, her father said. However, the family has received support from all over the world, with messages coming from as far away as New Zealand, the Netherlands and Canada, Steve Hunt said. He said he reads them to her to keep her spirits up, but she feels like she has let everyone down, he said through tears.
Prosecutors have offered a plea deal to Kaitlyn Hunt that would allow her to avoid registering as a sex offender if she pleads guilty to lesser charges of child abuse. State Attorney Bruce Colton said he would recommend two years of house arrest followed by one year probation if she takes the deal.
If she is found guilty, it's also possible that Hunt could apply to not have to register as a sex offender under a "Romeo and Juliet" law because the girls were no more than four years apart in age, Colton said.
Colton said the victim's family is not pushing for prison but wants Kaitlyn Hunt to be held responsible in some way. However, the Hunt family said they would accept a plea deal only if the charges are dropped to a misdemeanour.
"One of the reasons this case has gotten people's attention is because it's being publicized as a person being persecuted because she's gay, and that has nothing to do with the case, nothing to do with the law, nothing to do with the sheriff's office filing the charges," Colton said. He said the law is designed to protect younger children from older children who might be more aggressive in starting a relationship.
"The law doesn't make any differentiation. It doesn't matter if it's two girls or two boys, or an older boy and a younger girl or an older girl and a younger boy. Whatever the combination, it doesn't matter."
However, gay rights advocates aren't buying that. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said Kaitlyn Hunt is being criminalised for behaviour that "occurs every day in tens of thousands of high schools across the country, yet those other students are not facing felony convictions ... and potential lifelong branding as sex offenders".
Her support extends beyond the ACLU. A "Free Kate" Facebook page has generated more than 30,000 followers so far, and an online petition urging that the charges be dropped crashed at one point because it got so much traffic. It now has more than 100,000 signatures. And during a press conference Monday, dozens of supporters showed up outside of the Indian River Sheriff's Department, many wearing T-Shirts that read "Stop the Hate, Free Kate" with rainbow hearts.
"It's very difficult under these circumstances when the defendant and the victim do not see what they're doing as a crime, but understandably the law is very clear that when someone is more than four years older than the victim and the victim is under the age of 16, then they cannot give legal consent," said New Jersey defence attorney Gregory Gianforcaro, who has represented victims and defendants on both sides of this issue.
Gianforcaro said that Hunt's case is clearly not a predatory situation and that prosecutors should consider that when they look at sentencing and plea bargains.
"This is a very uncommon situation because of the fact there are two women. However, if it were a man and a woman and there was more than four years of an age difference, it's very possible that that kind of situation would be pursued criminally as well," Gianforcaro said.
The family said Kaitlyn Hunt had been demonised by some, and they disabled her personal Facebook account to protect her from negative comments. At school in February, her 17-year-old sister spent a half-hour cleaning a mirror where someone had written a slur against women and other words including "rapist" and "disgusting," Steve Hunt said.
In the meantime, Kaitlyn Hunt has been attending an alternative school since her expulsion and will be allowed to walk with her class at graduation in June. Her mother said she was expelled by the school board even though a judge ruled she could stay.
Sebastian River High School's principal and assistant principal did not immediately respond to emails.