By Lenore Skenazy . . . Zachary, now 19, is in jail awaiting sentencing for five pictures his teenage girlfriend sent him of herself in her underwear. He faced a choice between a possible (though unlikely) maximum sentence of 350 years in prison, or lifetime on the sex offender registry as a “sexually violent offender”—even though he never met the girl in person. Here’s what happened.
About two years ago, when Zachary was a 17-year-old high school senior in Stafford County, Virginia, a girl in his computer club invited him over to visit. She introduced him to her younger sister, age 13. This younger sister told Zachary he reminded her of a friend: this friend, also a 13-year-old girl, shared Zachary’s love of dragons and videogames.
The two 13-year-olds started skyping Zachary together. Eventually Zachary and the dragon-lover struck up a online friendship, which developed into a online romance. By the summer, a month after Zachary turned 18, the girl sent him five pictures of herself in her underwear. Her face was not visible, nor were her private parts.
That’s according to information provided by Zachary’s parents, as well as an evaluation with Zachary conducted by a psychologist. Zachary is incredibly smart, according to the psychologist, though socially awkward and emotionally immature. Importantly, he does not possess “distorted” ideas about sex, according to the psychologist.
Even so, Zachary was arrested and charged with 20 felonies, including indecent liberties with a minor, using a computer to propose sex, and “child porn reproduce/transmit/sell,” even though he did not send or sell the pictures to anyone. All this, from five underwear pictures. If convicted, Zachary’s father told me, he faced a theoretically possible maximum sentence of 350 years.
Instead, he took a plea bargain. This is what prosecutors do: scare defendants into a deal. Zachary agreed to plead guilty to two counts of “indecent liberties with a minor.” For this, he will be registered as a violent sex offender for the rest of his life.
Yes, “violent”—even though he never met the girl in person.
Zachary’s dad wrote to the authorities asking about this, and got a letter back from the Virginia State Police reiterating that, “This conviction requires Zachary to register as a sexually violent offender.”
The letter, which was obtained by Reason, added that in three years, “a violent sex offender or murderer” can petition to register less frequently than every three months.
“How do you like that?” said the dad in a phone conversation with me. “Same category as a murderer.”
As part of the plea, Zachary also agreed never to appeal. He will be sentenced on March 9. Until then, he remains in jail.
If this sounds like a punishment wildly out of whack with the crime, welcome to the world of teens, computers, and prosecutors who want to look tough on sex offenders. The girl did not wish to prosecute Zachary, according to his dad. He told me the pictures came to light because she had been having emotional issues, possibly due to her parents’ impending divorce. Eventually she was admitted to a mental health facility for treatment, and while there she revealed the relationship to a counselor. The counselor reported this to her mother, the police, or both (this part is unclear), leading the cops to execute a search warrant of Zachary’s electronic devices where they found the five photos and the chat logs.
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