On Thursday, local California news station Fox 40 reported on the case of Lyle Burgess, a 79-year-old Stockton businessman who was sentenced to just 90 days house arrest for molesting a 5-year-old girl. Additionally, Burgess will not have to register as a sex offender.
The story quickly spread on social media, many shocked at the fact Burgess was able to plead no contest to statutory rape, even though the victim was a 5-year-old girl. "He's obviously very wealthy and it's just an example of how the wealthy people, time and time again, escape the penalty for what they did," Kenneth Meleyco, a lawyer representing the family, told KMOV.
In a press release, the San Joaquin District Attorney's office said "there has been confusion in media outlets reporting the basics [sic] facts of this case," making a point to note that even though Burgess was charged and convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse with a child, Burgess' victim had not been "sexually penetrated by any means."
The DA's office also reiterated that the parents of the child agreed upon the sentencing. Jane Manning, a former sex crimes prosecutor and current director of advocacy with Women's Justice NOW, told Refinery29 in an interview that the parents' agreeing to the sentence shouldn't be relevant. "The bottom line is that responsibility rests with the district attorney's office to decide whether a sentence is appropriate or not. Passing the buck to a crime victim or to her family doesn't absolve the DA of her responsibility to protect public safety," she said.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the child's mother asserted that she saw Burgess put his hands down her daughters pants. Burgess' lawyer attempted to downplay the crime, telling the paper that his client is innocent and only pleaded no contest because "he is in frail health and wanted to move on with his life."
"The whole case was based upon some minor touching that my client denied even occurred," Burgess' lawyer said.
Dr. Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, told Refinery29 that a statutory rape charge is usually applied in cases where "one party is above the age of consent and the other below but the relationship is generally considered to be consensual. This would never apply in a case when one party is a 5-year-old child. I cannot speculate why this charge was put forth." She added that it's not "common practice" that the DA's office chose to make a distinction in Burgess' charges that penetration did not occur.
While Burgess' sentencing may strike many as unusual, Manning said that commitment to prosecuting sex crimes varies widely across DA offices."You can have some DA offices that consistently make a point of taking these cases very seriously and you have some DA offices that don't," she said.
Despite Burgess' lawyer saying the incident in question was "minor touching," Manning said that just because "no penetration" took place does not mean it won't have adverse effects on the child. "Child molestation is a profoundly harmful crime, whether or not there was penetration. It's a violation of the child's sense of safety, sense of trust, sense of self," she said. "It's a violation of that child's sense of sovereignty over her own body. The idea that it's not a big deal because there was no penetration is really troubling."
"What the two cases have in common," Manning told Refinery29, "is an economically privileged white defendant."
Meleyco, the lawyer representing the family, says the child is currently getting professional help for her trauma. "The girl is not doing good," he told KMOV. "She's showing all the symptoms of somebody who's been molested. She's in counseling, and she's gonna be in counseling all her life."
Refinery29 has reached out to the San Joaquin District Attorney's office and Kenneth Meleyco and will update this story if we hear back.