Government & Politics

Kansas lawmakers reject change after judge labeled child victim ‘aggressor’ in sex case

Kansas lawmakers have effectively killed legislation Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed following an outcry over a Leavenworth County judge’s decision to call a child an “aggressor” in a sex crime.

Following a wrenching discussion, a House committee voted Monday to table a bill that would prevent judges from reducing a sentence based on a finding that a child victim younger than 14 was an aggressor.

Republicans and Democrats both voiced concerns with the legislation while also calling it well-intentioned. In the end, a voice vote in the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee to table the bill appeared unanimous. No dissent could be heard.

“I don’t like calling a sex victim, be it male or female, an aggressor,” said Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City, but adding that there are certain situations where that is the reality.

In December, Raymond Soden of Leavenworth, 67, was sentenced for soliciting sex from teens online. District Judge Michael Gibbens handed down five years and 10 months in prison – eight years less than called for in Kansas sentencing guidelines.

Gibbens opined that the girls Soden had sex with – 13 and 14 years old – were “more an aggressor than a participant in the criminal conduct.” He said he was “pretty familiar” with the girls already and that, based on what he knew about them, believed it was possible that they could have set Soden up to be robbed.

The judge pointed out that the children went to Soden’s house voluntarily, and that they took money in exchange for sexual favors.

Gibbens also said the fact that the girls did not appear in court to speak at the sentencing was one of the reasons he believed they didn’t suffer the level of harm typically seen in such cases.

After The Star published a story about the case earlier this month, Schmidt introduced a bill to eliminate the aggressor finding as a sentencing factor in sex crimes when the victim is younger than 14 and the offender is an adult. It also takes away the ability of judges to find the victims had been “participants” in the conduct.

During the committee meeting Monday, lawmakers walked through details of the case. Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said he had read the sentencing transcript and called the case a “terrible, terrible situation.”

The judge made a difficult decision, he said.

“I think we have to trust judges. I think we have to give them some level of discretion,” Carmichael said. “And while a no vote on either one of these bills might be writing a political epitaph, I find it very, very difficult to say in that circumstance or perhaps in other very limited circumstances that the judge ought not have the discretion to make the finding at a minimum that the victims were participants.”

Schmidt said when he introduced the bill that “no matter the child’s behavior, child victims are not responsible for the criminal conduct of adults who commit sex crimes against them.”

After the vote Monday, C.J. Grover, a spokesman for Schmidt, said the “attorney general continues to believe Kansas law should not allow children to be labeled ‘aggressors’ who are responsible for the criminal conduct of adults who commit sex crimes against them.”

The committee also declined to take action on a similar measure introduced the same day as Schmidt’s bill.

“It’s dead,” Rep. Russ Jennings, the committee chairman, said.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.
Tony Rizzo covers federal and state courts for The Kansas City Star, where he has been a reporter for more than 30 years. He is a Kansas City native and veteran of the U.S. Army.