Analysis: Miss. statutory rape statute debated

By Jack Elliott Jr./The Associated Press

JACKSON — A Leflore County case may allow the Mississippi Supreme Court to determine if statutory rape is a violent crime under state law.

Chris Taylor got a life sentence as a habitual offender. The sentence could only be imposed if one of his convictions was a violent crime — in this case, statutory rape.

Taylor said prosecutors didn’t prove statutory rape is a violent crime. A Leflore County judge and the state Court of Appeals disagreed with him. The Supreme Court will hear arguments July 25.

The Supreme Court has been inconsistent in its rulings on statutory rape. Generally, it has held that “a separate standard of determining violence applies when the victim is a child.”

The Supreme Court’s decision will determine if Taylor gets a lesser sentence and a chance to leave prison one day.

Sandy Middleton, executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention, a domestic violence and sexual assault shelter in Pearl, said in an interview that there wouldn’t be any question about the violence of statutory rape if people “saw and understood the after effects of this crime on children and the lifelong trauma that results.”

“It just permeates every fiber of their being. They get mixed up about love, sex, trust and guilt — issues they shouldn’t have to deal with as babies,” said Middleton, who has no involvement in the Taylor case.

The Legislature updated the statutory rape law in 1998, making it illegal for an adult to have sex with anyone under age 16. Previously, the age of consent was 14. Some sex between minors also was made unlawful.

The court record shows Taylor had sex in December 1999 with a girl younger than 14. Her exact age is not specified in the record. Taylor was 19 at the time.

In 2000, Taylor pleaded guilty to statutory rape and sale of less than an ounce of marijuana.

He later was convicted of having contraband — marijuana — in prison.

Prosecutors sought a life sentence based on Taylor’s being an habitual offender. A trial judge determined during sentencing on the contraband charges that statutory rape was a violent crime and gave Taylor life in prison. The state Court of Appeals agreed in a 6-4 decision in 2011.

The Appeals Court’s majority relied on a 1986 case in which the Mississippi Supreme Court was confronted with the question of whether the attempted sexual assault of a child constituted a crime of violence.

The Supreme Court held: “In the absence of a legislative standard, we adopt the rationale that a separate standard of determining violence applies when the victim is a child. Thus … assault with attempt to commit sodomy … was … a crime that was violent, per se.”

In a 2004 case and in a discussion of statutory rape generally, the Mississippi high court said “there may be instances of consensual, nonviolent sex which nonetheless violate the statutory rape laws.”

In a dissent in the Taylor case, Appeals Court Judge Larry Roberts said it’s possible that sex between Taylor and girl was consensual and there was no violence involved.

“By our statutes, statutory rape simply does not include violence or the threat of violence to a person as one of its essential elements,” he wrote.

Roberts said prosecutors must prove violence was present in the crime before a life sentence is imposed.

But Appeals Judge Virginia Carlton said statutory rape cannot be considered consensual.

“A child under the age of 16 lacks capacity to consent to the physical sexual act that violates his or her body and the law finds harm occurring in assaults even where the forced used is slight,” she said.