A Kansas judge is under fire not only for giving a sex-crime defendant a significantly reduced sentence but also for suggesting that the victims - two girls aged 13 and 14 - are partially culpable.
"I do find that the victims in this case are more of an aggressor than a participant in the criminal conduct," Leavenworth County District Judge Michael Gibbens said during a recent sentencing hearing just outside of Kansas City, Kansas. "They were certainly selling things monetarily that's against the law for even an adult to sell."
Gibbens also said he's "not convinced" that the victims, who are sisters, suffered substantial harm.
The defendant is Raymond Soden, a 67-year-old man who was arrested last year after, prosecutors said, he used social media to solicit sex from the minors. Soden reached a deal with the Leavenworth County attorney's office and was sentenced in December to five years in prison - about eight years short of the minimum punishment allowed by the state's sentencing guidelines.
The case attracted widespread attention this week after the Kansas City Star obtained a transcript of the sentencing hearing. The paper published an editorial saying that Gibbens "made a serious mistake" by reducing Soden's sentence and that he shouldn't be a judge.
"If Gibbens believes that child sex abuse victims are somehow aggressors, he doesn't belong on the bench," according to the paper's editorial board.
A call to Gibbens' office was not returned.
Leavenworth County Attorney Todd Thompson said his office is reviewing the possibility of appealing the sentence. Judges are bound by Kansas' sentencing guidelines, and there must be a "substantial and compelling reason" for judges to go below or above the recommended punishments. Thompson's office can argue that one doesn't exist in Soden's case.
Thompson said it would be unethical for him to comment on what Gibbens said in his courtroom.
Gibbens said during the hearing that he considered Soden's age as a factor. He also said Soden was intellectually impaired and lacks capacity for judgment. In using the term "aggressor" to describe the victims, Gibbens appeared to be talking about Kansas law, which says a defendant's sentence can be reduced if the victim "was an aggressor or participant" in the crime. In this case, Gibbens found that the sisters are the former.
The crime happened in early 2018. Soden knew the sisters through their mother, who regularly cleaned his apartment, Thompson said. Eventually, he contacted them through Facebook and began asking for nude photos and sexual favours in exchange for money, Thompson said.
Soden was charged for engaging in "lewd fondling" of a child under 14 and for soliciting sex from a child under 14, according to charging documents. Prosecutors agreed to drop the first count, and Soden pleaded no contest to the solicitation charge, meaning he's neither accepting nor denying responsibility for the crime. A judge then found him guilty of that charge.
Gibbens' comments were swiftly condemned by child advocacy groups.
"The truth is: children can't consent to a sexual relationship with an adult," the Sunflower House, a nonprofit based in Shawnee, Kansas, said on Facebook. "There is an inherent power and control inequity. Whenever a child and adult engaged in sexual behaviour, the adult is always responsible! These girls are minors, and are the 'victims,' not the 'aggressors.' "
Haleigh Harrold, coordinator of prevention for the Metropolitan Organisation to Counter Sexual Assault in Kansas City, Missouri, said the "victim-blaming statements" were hardly a shock.
"I work with middle schoolers and high schoolers every day, and they often ask questions about the dynamics of sexual assault," Harrold said, adding that the judge's comments highlight the need for more education.
A spokeswoman for the Kansas Supreme Court, which handles judicial disciplines, said she can't comment on whether the judge's actions could be grounds for punishment. Confidentiality rules prohibit any public statements about pending cases or cases that could be appealed. They also don't allow the Supreme Court to confirm or deny the existence of complaints or investigations about a judge's conduct.
Any person can file a complaint with the Kansas Commission on Judicial Qualifications, which was established by the state Supreme Court. The panel then determines which complaints deserve hearings and further investigation.
Other judges have caught controversy over comments made to crime victims. In Florida, a judge endured a six-minute public reprimand from the state Supreme Court for berating a domestic violence victim. In Canada, a judge resigned amid outrage over comments he made to an alleged rape victim: "Why couldn't you just keep your knees together?"