Monday, May 21, 2018
Politics

Carlton: Rape case politics? New state attorney has no regrets

All's fair in love and war, the saying goes.

But how about in politics, and some incendiary accusations of mishandled rape cases?

In arguably the most interesting local race last year, Republican incumbent Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober was challenged by first-time candidate Andrew Warren, a Democrat. Word was the well-known Ober could not be beaten. Word was wrong.

Warren called the current administration as outdated as a rotary phone. Ober pointed to a largely unknown former federal prosecutor's utter lack of state court experience. It was fair game, standard campaign stuff.

Then came the sex offense cases, one of which inspired a campaign mailer depicting gravely concerned citizens and the words: Mr. Ober. rape is rape. And yes, that would make a voter sit up and pay attention.

One case Warren sharply criticized involved a 14-year-old girl who had sex with four 17- and 18-year-olds in 2003. They pleaded to felony battery and got probation in a deal that took into account concerns about defense lawyers working to discredit the victim in a public trial.

Warren said it was about connected lawyers in a good-old-boy system. But the victim's family had agreed to the deal in what appeared to be a difficult and complicated case, as sex offenses often are.

The victim, by then 27, released a statement saying she never gave permission for her case to be exploited for politics.

Another case involved Alexander Pelzer, a Maryland musician with a big YouTube following. Pelzer, who was in his 20s, was accused of talking online with a Tampa teenager who contacted him when she was 15 and flew to see him in Washington, D.C., when she was 17. According to court records and testimony, that's when they had sex, and where the age of consent is 16.

Records show the two also had very sexually explicit communications online during that time. Sheriff's Office investigators found no evidence that she was threatened or coerced. Pelzer wasn't initially charged, but ultimately faced several counts including use of a child in a sexual performance.

Warren called the case mishandled, criticized that Pelzer wasn't originally charged and implied the charges he faced weren't strong enough. He called her a child "sex slave" who was "lured by an online predator" and "repeatedly raped."

Ober said Warren didn't have the facts. He noted that she willingly went to see him and that the sex occurred in another jurisdiction, not in Hillsborough County.

MARK OBER SHAME — BLAMED 17-YEAR-OLD RAPE VICTIM, said a campaign flier from the state Democratic Party supporting Warren.

He won in a squeaker.

Eight months in and Warren is setting his own tone, expanding the use of civil citations instead of arrests for certain juvenile offenders and adding his signature to a letter opposing Attorney General Jeff Sessions' tough-on-crime policies.

An interesting postscript: Last week, Pelzer's case ended quietly with no sex crime conviction, no jail time and no formal finding of guilt on his record by a judge. It was handled by a prosecutor from Polk County appointed by the governor after Warren asked to be removed because the case had been "an issue" in the election.

Now 28, Pelzer pleaded guilty in his best interest to one count of "unlawful use of a two-way communication device" related to their computer communication. He was sentenced to five years' probation and community service.

"The appointed prosecutor could have cared less about the prior pretrial publicity or the politics," said his attorney Steve Romine. The prosecutor evaluated the evidence and "we were able to reach a resolution that would let everyone move forward with their lives."

The woman, now 19, was in court for this. Though she had written a strong letter criticizing Ober's office's handling of her case, she agreed to this resolution.

Given the outcome and the at-odds facts —Warren referred to her during the campaign as a "15-year-old rape victim" — I asked him if using this in his campaign was fair, or in his view, fair game. I asked if he would have done it differently given how it played out.

He was unambiguous in his emailed response: No. He stood by what he said and did.

So was the disposition of the Hillsborough case appropriate?

"Just because you don't win at trial doesn't mean the case shouldn't have been charged; prosecutors have to take on tough cases for the safety of the community," Warren responded. Which sounds like he's getting that politics part down pretty well.

Contact Sue Carlton at carlton@tampabay.com.

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