Missouri man Joseph Robert Meili, 22, received no jail time and was instead sentenced to five years of supervised probation on Friday for molesting an 11-year-old girl.
The outcome follows a pattern of other sexual assault cases in which the defendants, usually young white men such as convicted sex offender Brock Turner and accused rapist Jacob Walter Anderson, have gotten away with extremely lenient sentences.
Meili admitted to the sex crime, pleading guilty to third-degree child molestation in March, in exchange for prosecutors dismissing the first-degree statutory rape, statutory sodomy, and child kidnapping charges he also faced, as part of a plea deal.
He met the girl on MeetMe, a dating app, and they agreed to meet in person in July 2017, according to court documents. She used her mother’s phone to message with him, USA Today reported. Police said Meili picked her up near her home in Republic, MO, and drove her about 15 miles to his apartment in Springfield, MO, where he molested her. She was reported missing, and a search party of officers and firefighters began looking for her. Later that night, Meili dropped her off at home, and she was found packing her bags to leave again.
The girl told the police she fell asleep at Meili’s apartment and woke up “feeling as though something sexual had happened,” according to The Jefferson City News Tribune. Weeks later, she told investigators Meili raped her. She reportedly tested positive for chlamydia, and investigators found semen in her underwear.
Judge Calvin R. Holden, who oversaw the case, chose the five-year probation sentence despite the fact that under Missouri law, third-degree child molestation is considered a class C felony punishable by three to 10 years in prison (or a lesser term paired with a $10,000 fine). Prosecutors had recommended that Meili serve up to seven years in prison and 120 days in a sex offender treatment program.
Holden has been criticized in the past for being too lenient in his sentencing of men who commit crimes against children. In 2016, the judge sentenced Joseph Presley, 23, to five years probation and a month in Greene County Jail for sexually abusing an 8-year-old boy he babysat. A concerned citizen created a Change.org petition to remove Holden from his position following this sentencing, which critics compared to the Brock Turner case, in which Judge Aaron Persky handed Turner, who was caught sexually assaulting a barely conscious woman, a sympathetic, six-month jail sentence.
Meili claimed he only agreed to meet up with the girl because her dating profile said she was 18. Scott Pierson, Meili’s attorney, told HuffPost that the girl “catfished” his client by misrepresenting her age online. “He felt horrible about the entire incident,” Pierson said. “He’s going to be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life... Neither side is really going to get justice here.”
Greene County Senior Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Elizabeth Fax told HuffPost that it is “absolutely” impossible for Meili to have believed the girl was 18. “To actually see her in person... He knew and just decided to go along with it anyway,” Fax said. “It’s just really hard for people to wrap their minds around the fact that these are children. They might wear makeup and be on dating apps and try to hook up with older men but, at the end of the day, these are children.”
According to both Pierson and Fax, child molestation and statutory rape cases in Greene County similar to Meili’s tend to result in probation rather than prison sentences. Holden, who sits on Missouri’s 31st Circuit Court, also angered Greene County community members in February after sentencing a twice-convicted rapist, Beau Maurice Gormley, to five years of probation. The 33-year-old Republic, MO, man raped a woman one month into his probation for a previous statutory rape sentence.