Under Texas trafficking law, sex with minor can mean life in prison –
See more at: Under Texas trafficking law, sex with minor can mean life in prison -Austin American Statesman By Esther Robards-Forbes – American-Statesman Staff
Robert Ritz was a 43-year-old prison guard who met a young girl online and had a sexual relationship with the 14-year-old for about a year. A few years ago, such a crime would’ve put him behind bars for two to 20 years for sexual assault of a child. But a Hays County jury this week gave Ritz, now 45, life in prison without the possibility of parole, under a relatively new trafficking law targeting people who transport young victims for sexual purposes.
That outcome alarmed the law’s author, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, who said the 2011 law was intended to target criminals who were selling people into prostitution or holding them against their will for commercial purposes. Hays County prosecutors said the law applies because Ritz was driving the girl to other locations to have sex.“I don’t see how the prosecutor was able to use this bill,” Thompson said. “I think this bill has been misapplied to this case. House Bill 3000 was not intended for that use.”Hays County prosecutors called the case a landmark victory and said it was the first time they had prosecuted anyone under this statute, which makes continuous trafficking of someone under 17 or continuous sexual abuse of someone under 14 a crime punishable by life in prison without parole.
The only other charge under the penal code with such an option is capital murder, said Brian Erskine, Hays County’s chief assistant criminal district attorney. “Our endeavor is and has always been to be a leader in the prosecution of crimes against children,” Erskine said. “When access to our children intersects with technology and the perseverance of these depraved offenders, the exploitation of vulnerable victims must be met with a strong response.
Our community has responded. “According to court records, Ritz met the girl in 2011 through the online dating site eHarmony, where the girl gave a fake age in her profile. But messages between the two indicated he knew she was underage. Ritz exchanged sexually explicit text messages with the girl, and she sneaked out of her Hays County home to meet him. He then drove her to his home in Austin or other locations to have sex, authorities said.It is unclear how the case got reported to authorities, though one incident happened in the presence of the girl’s 12-year-old friend, who testified in court. Prosecutors characterized Ritz as a manipulative predator who continued to contact the victim even after he became aware of the investigation and wrote her two letters while in custody “expressing his obsession with the minor with the hope of influencing her testimony,” Erskine said. According to court records, Ritz had even tried to persuade the girl to run away with him.“The Legislature sees the effects that this type of abuse has on children and on our communities,” Erskine said. “That’s something that sticks with them the rest of their life.
“The jury in Hays County had the option of convicting Ritz of a lesser charge with a lesser penalty and chose not to, Erskine said. Under the continuous trafficking charge, the jury could have chosen anywhere from 25 years in prison to life. Ritz’s attorney, Barrett Hansen of Cedar Creek, said that sentence is far too harsh.“Before the trafficking law, this was not a case where life in prison would have even been a possibility,” Hansen said.The stiffer penalties under these new charges can persuade criminals to take longer plea deals, keeping young victims off the witness stand, said Shannon Edmonds of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.
A crime is whatever the Legislature says it is,” Edmonds said. “If they want to make jaywalking a felony, they can. And if they want to make sex between a minor and an adult a trafficking offense, they can do that, and in this state they have. “Defense experts said the laws are too broadly written and these charges can catch the wrong kind of cases. They also worried about more crimes becoming eligible for life sentences. “History says that once you introduce a particular maximum punishment, when you see something that is indefensible, then we need to use that on everything,” said Allen Place, of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “Before long you wind up having the maximum possible sentence for a variety of issues. “Hansen said that Ritz could face additional charges in Travis County for sex crimes involving the same girl. Hansen plans to appeal the case in Hays County. “In the penal code, prosecutors are required to see justice done, not just get convictions,” Hansen said. “From my perspective this does not look like justice. It looks like a witch hunt. This is very scary.