Cyberbullying Charges Dropped, Sheriff Owes An Apology

Remember back a month ago when Polk County, Florida sheriff, Grady Judd was everywhere. It seemed that there was no media appearance too small for him to do. He was oozing with passion and excitement in front of the cameras while showcasing to the world that two juveniles, a 12 and 14 year-old, were arrested for a horrible crime. While literally holding their photographs, he announced their names to the world and alleged that the girls’ cyberbullying caused another teenager to commit suicide. Fueling his fire more was an alleged remorseless Facebook post by the older arrested teen wherein she allegedly shrugged off the suicide. Without question, the girls, charged with felony aggravated stalking, were vilified.

In a move that shocked many, including this veteran of the criminal justice arena, this week, prosecutors dropped charges against both teens. Apparently, AFTER the teens’ arrest, prosecutors carefully combed through and analyzed thousands of Facebook chats. One of the lawyers for the teens claimed that the 27,000 Facebook pages showed absolutely no evidence that either teen committed a crime. Rather, he alleged that there was evidence that the 12 year-old defendant was bullied by the alleged victim. Prosecutors aren’t commenting, claiming they can’t speak about the case because the law precludes them from speaking about cases involving juvenile defendants.

Sheriff Judd doesn’t feel the need to apologize. On the contrary, he claims that he has no regrets and that Florida law permits him to release the names of any and all juveniles charged with felonies. Further, he said that he believed he had probable cause to make an arrest and that prosecutors have the right to decide whether to move forward on a case. He told reporters that he is proud of the fact that he “raised awareness and helped kids.”

I would agree that he did exactly that. I applaud the sheriff for bringing the spotlight on the social media cyberbulling epidemic. Kids are unnecessarily dying and parents need to be more aware of what their kids are reading and posting. Additionally, as a result of his press conferences, Sheriff Judd made everyone realize that cyberbullying can really lead to loss of liberty and serious criminal charges. That was all very positive.

As much as I applaud him for increasing awareness on this significant issue, I equally condemn him for the way he handled these two specific teen defendants. Without thoroughly reviewing the voluminous Facebook pages, he chose to make an arrest. I will forever think of him when I hear the expression, “Putting the cart before the horse.” Having personally witnessed the dead teen immediately after she took her life, he was naturally consumed with emotion. I believe that when he made the arrests, he was guided more by his emotions than logic, reasoning and evidence.

Additionally, another thing that he did that I take exception to is that he showed the teens’ photographs and announced their names to the world. He’s been around long enough to know that in a number of instances, prosecutors review cases and determine that there’s insufficient evidence to move forward. He also knows that mistakes by law enforcement can be made. If it was later determined that one of the teens computers were hacked, for example, he couldn’t take back his extensive character assassination, in spite of their innocence. Now, in this case, in spite of insufficient evidence, he can’t take back what he said. These teens were crucified and evidence of it will remain all over the internet for their entire lives.

So here’s my message directly to Sheriff Judd. I believe that you owe these teens and the world an apology for how you specifically chose to handle this. While I appreciate you raising awareness for this issue, I don’t believe that you needed to specifically identify these two teens in the manner in which you did. Their names and faces weren’t a crucial part of the story. Awareness could have been raised without vilifying them before the evidence was reviewed. I just hope you think about that before you hold your next press conference after your next big arrest.