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The Guilty Project: Why Were “Papa Love” Speights’ Other Victims Denied Justice?

Now that fugitive child rapist “Poppa Love” Speights has been tracked down by the police (for the second time — after a Tampa judge actually cut him loose on bail despite his flight from the law on child-rape charges in 2008), maybe more of his victims will come forward.

Then again, that’s what was said the last time, too.

You can hardly blame Speights’ victims for not trusting authorities to keep them safe — some authorities, that is.  The police worked hard, for years, to put Speights away.  Other child victims came forward, at grave personal risk, only to be denied a day in court.  The courts remain bluntly inaccessible to victims of child rape and overly sympathetic to their assailants.  This is true despite decades of advocacy.  Here’s why:

  • Myths of wrongful prosecution, fed by media activists such as Dorothy Rabinowitz, who wildly exaggerated the prevalence of wrongful prosecutions after a handful of unjust prosecutions made headlines . . . twenty years ago.   Rabinowitz and other self-proclaimed “wrongful prosecution experts” irresponsibly claimed that these isolated cases constituted a vast, shadowy movement against innocent, falsely accused defendants.  There was no such thing, and neither Rabinowitz nor any of her equally irresponsible peers ever bothered to try to make a statistical case.  Nor were they asked to do so: it was enough to point fingers, shriek “witch hunt” and dine out on the outrage they were generating — while countless child victims watched their own chance for justice evaporate, thanks in large part to the hysteria Rabinowitz orchestrated.  How many prosecutions were actually found to be flawed?  So few they are remembered by name and may be counted on one hand.  How many victims of child sexual assault were consequently denied even a chance for justice?  It’s impossible to know.  But hundreds of thousands of cases of child sexual abuse have gone un-prosecuted in the twenty years since Rabinowitz et. al. helped put a deep chill on the public’s willingness to believe victims of this crime.
  • Pro-offender biases on the part of judges. Too many judges see their role as defenders of defendants instead of objective arbiters of the law.  This probably has a lot to do with the number of politically-connected defense attorneys who make it to the bench.  I personally can’t conceive of any other reason why some judge let Speights walk free in 2008, even after he was found to have fathered a child by raping a 12-year old.
  • Defendant-biased evidence rules that make it virtually impossible to introduce facts and arguments in the courtroom.  In Trials Without Truth, William Pizzi explains how Supreme Court-driven exclusionary rules have warped the trial system, always in favor of defendants.
  • Public unwillingness to foot the bill (and the defense bar’s successes in padding it).  Even when evidence exists to try defendants, prosecutors working with extremely limited budgets can only afford to try a fraction of cases, or sometimes a fraction of charges against individual defendants.  Add that to the multiple ways defendants can get off on technicalities, and prosecutors are forced to shelve the majority of the cases they ought to be bringing to trial.

The criminal career of “Papa Love” Speights is a direct consequence of these prejudices and shortcomings.  His sexual crimes against children have been known to the police for years, but they never succeeded in bringing charges that stuck, until DNA identified him as the father of an infant whose mother was 12 when she was raped and impregnated by him.  Even then, a judge let him go free to await trial.

Another child victim who had come forward — his own daughter — never got her day in court, says St. Petersburgh Times reporter Alexandra Zayas:

A teenage girl went to police in 2005, saying her father raped her repeatedly for two years, paid cash for her silence and for good measure, showed her a gun.  Prosecutors lacked enough evidence to pursue charges.  A year later, that same man raped a 12-year-old niece and slipped her $20.  He was John Jerome Speights Jr., a 45-year-old with more than 30 children and paternity claims from more than a dozen women. He calls himself Poppa Love.

Speights actually tattoos his name on his wives and female children:

His ex-wife’s thigh “belongs to P. Love.” Daughters are inked “Daddy’s Girl.”  Over the years, he has had access to many young girls, including his own daughters and other relatives.

The details of the daughter’s rape are chilling.  The child reached out to authorities and told the police of other victims, but the State Attorney’s Office declined to act.  Why?

His daughter was 14 when it started. At a family reunion in northern Florida, she told police, she ended up alone with him in a motel room.  He asked if she was a virgin, she told police. He said he was going to give her a test. Then he had intercourse with her, while telling her, “I am not having sex with you,” she said.  It happened more than once, she reported. On a porch, in motels, in his car, near a graveyard. In the front yard of her aunt’s home. In his house, after he locked the other kids out.  The daughter said he told her to think of him as her boyfriend. That he would whip her brothers if she didn’t have sex with him. That if she told, he’d shoot himself, she said, or drive them both off the road. . . Speights denied the allegation. When police came, he fled.  They spoke to his wife. She said neither of them was employed and that she collected disability checks for the kids.  “Eight children live with them,” the detective wrote. “She said that she doesn’t know their ages because there are too many of them to keep straight.”  The daughter reported seeing young girls taken out of the bedroom late at night, but none of them alleged abuse.  Speights skipped his interview with police. His wife told them his attorney had advised him against talking.  The following day, a detective presented the case to the State Attorney’s Office and was told there was insufficient evidence. The case was closed but could be reopened with more proof.

Where was child protective services?  Astonishingly, Speights actually took one of his victims to court for child support — and the victim was thrown into jail.  The girl was 15 when he impregnated  her:

Court files suggest that [the niece’s child] wasn’t the first baby he fathered with a teen. In 2004, he filed a child support case in one such case. He was 30 when their son was born. She would have been 15. She could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.  When she failed to pay, the Hillsborough court held her in contempt and Gulfport police threw her in jail.

A judge in Hillsborough County court threw a teen mother in jail at the behest of the adult who impregnated her.  Another judge — or possibly two — let Speight remain free from 2008 to 2010.  If this case does not cry out for a top-to-bottom review of the court’s response to child abuse and sexual abuse cases, what does?

If only crusading journalists like Ms. Rabbinowitz behaved as if victims deserved justice, just like regular people.  Don’t hold your breath, though.

Tomorrow: What, if anything, can be done.

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