The New Jersey jury returned guilty verdicts this week against four Glen Ridge High School football stars accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old retarded girl who idolized them. The verdict sent a powerful message that youth, popularity and charm don't excuse behavior that would be vile even if it weren't criminal.
The prosecution contended that the four youths lured the young woman, who had an I.Q. of 64, into a basement with the promise of a date, then forced her to perform perverted sex acts. Prosecutors argued the girl was retarded and unable to give her consent to such acts, and that the defendants knew or should have known that. Witnesses testified that the victim possessed the mental skills of an 8-year-old and was unable to follow a movie's plot or instructions to cut a pie in half.
The defendant's lawyers attempted to depict the young woman as a promiscuous temptress who initiated the acts and who was eager for sexual adventures with the accused. They contended the young men were the real victims because the young woman had been the sexual aggressor.
Jurors rejected that logic and later told reporters they decided early on that the young woman was mentally impaired. In finding three defendants guilty of assault and the fourth guilty of conspiracy, they also accepted arguments that the acts constituted an assault even though no explicit threats were made and some circumstances surrounding the events in the basement were ambiguous.
Women's groups hailed the decision as signaling an expansion of the definition of rape to include situations in which no obvious force was used and the threats used to coerce the victim were implied rather than overt. Advocates for the mentally retarded said the verdict showed the criminal justice system could give retarded people the same legal protections as the nonretarded.
Both claims may be premature. The prosecution won because of the heinous nature of the acts, because they involved several assailants against a lone woman and because the victim's handicap was so obvious. Future cases may not be so clear cut. The intense publicity and a decision by the trial judge to allow testimony about the young woman's sexual history may even discourage other victims from coming forward. Despite such misgivings, however, it appears that in this case justice was done.