Sex video case draws attention to technology, teen behavior

Published 10:31 pm Thursday, August 4, 2011

Editor’s note: This is the second part of an exclusive interview the mother of Martell Miller, one of four Niles teens facing trial this fall for alleged criminal sexual conduct. Mrs. Miller requested her first name not be printed for this story.

Since Martell Miller’s arrest in May on charges that include criminal sexual conduct and extortion, his mother says she has been faced with a situation she never thought she would have to go through.
And it is something she is still trying to understand — while trying to keep up with the developments in her son’s case.
After Judge Scott Schofield issued a ruling that reduced Miller’s bond, Mrs. Miller was able to get her son out of jail with the help of funds donated by friends, family and her church.
“It is a joy to have my son back home where he belongs,” Mrs. Miller said. “It’s wonderful to see his smile, to see him around here full of life and at peace.”
Miller’s case, along with those of Trey Nichols, Martise Washington and Parnell Martin, all 18, drew significant media attention following the arrests at Niles High School in May.
Miller and Nichols both have case conferences scheduled for Friday morning at the Berrien County Courthouse in Niles.
With trial set for October, Mrs. Miller is in need of new private counsel for her son after his attorney, Sean Drew, withdrew from the case last month.
No longer working as defense counsel, Drew gave his opinion on the elements of the case.
“As a private citizen I think society needs to look at itself in regard to the technology that we have allowed to proliferate and the overall behavior of both sexes,” Drew said. “Both boys and girls, men, young men and young women in the way they interact with each other. The law is the law but i think oftentimes discretion needs to be used more often than it is … (also) in choosing the charging of certain crimes.”
When trial begins in October, a jury is expected to hear both sides of what allegedly happened one afternoon in March.
That’s when the alleged victim testified she was threatened with a video of her having sex with Washington, a video she said she did not know had been recorded.
According to the victim’s testimony in preliminary hearings, what allegedly followed was the threat of the video being posted on Facebook in exchange for numerous sexual favors.
In the new media, social media age, cases like these seem to be making headlines across the country, from isolated incidents of ruthless bullying online, to the circulation of sexually explicit photos and the more notable sexting incidents of congressmen and other public figures.
The issue can get complicated when it comes to minors and young adults.
“The whole societal relationship is vastly different and that’s where I think some discretion needs to come in that would be warranted in both the charging and how it’s handled,” Drew said. “And I’m not limiting it to this case. I’m saying it in a broad sense because we don’t want to dummy down our laws, but on the other side of the coin, we have to take into account we are dealing with people who are young and immature and yet … the whole of society has allowed this to happen.”
Berrien County Prosecuting Attorney Art Cotter might agree with some of Drew’s comments.
Speaking generally, Cotter said sexually explicit photos or video can be an “opportunity for people to truly breach somebody’s privacy.”
And when it comes to cases like the one facing Miller, Martin, Washington and Nichols, the consequences of such actions are severe and often unanticipated.
“When they take a picture of themselves in a compromising position in the media age, the video age, that could haunt them literally for the rest of their life,” Cotter said, adding later that adults and teenagers alike should never let anyone take such photos.
At a younger age, he said, it’s possible, “they think it’s a joke. And it isn’t a joke.”
Asked whether or not he believes that was the case in the matter of the allegations against Miller, Nichols, Washington and Martin, Cotter’s response was, “I don’t think anybody would think that this is a joke.”
He added part of the evidence in the cases consisting of text messages, video and audio actually presents an asset to the prosecution.
“… It’s preserved,” Cotter said. “So you have a documented trail.”
It could be that trail that keeps defense attorneys in the case working hard to keep their clients out of jail.
“I would urge everyone that’s involved in the case to work very hard,” Drew said. “Just like any other case, they’re going to have to get things together, interview witnesses. I think the cross examination is going to be very important as in any trial.”
Sitting across from Martell Miller’s mother, one is reminded of a sense of confusion that hangs around the elements of the case.
How five young men, some of whom, like Miller, had never been in trouble with the law before, could now be facing life in prison — the maximum penalty for first degree criminal sexual conduct, a charge each defendant is facing.
The charges a stinging reminder of how serious the allegations.
The case yet another of those becoming more common and more tragic.
Teenagers and today’s youth are especially at risk when it comes to opening themselves up to such a vulnerability.
“Certainly today the youth are exposed to a heck of a lot more than they would have been in the past,” Cotter said, due in part to media. “Part of the problem in these kinds of cases is they’re really not at the level of maturity when they’re making decisions could really have long term consequences. The fact that kids are exposed to so much more, I think gives them a false sense of maturity.”
The prosecutor repeatedly refers to the 2009 case of Jessica Logan of Cincinnati, who reportedly sent a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend, thinking it would remain private. The photo was then sent to a number of high schools, according to reports, and Logan, becoming the victim of vicious taunts, later hung herself in her bedroom.
When asked about the severity of the charges facing the defendants, Cotter is clear about how seriously his office and prosecutor Steve Pierangeli, who is trying the case, are taking it.
“Those who think these are just teenagers screwing around are mistaken in terms of the law,” Cotter said. “I don’t think most people are going to say that it is not as serious as we’re treating it.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the line, Mrs. Miller prays for her son’s vindication as she asserts his innocence.
“Honestly, as a parent, I think, the justice system has failed when it says innocent until proven guilty,” she said. “How can a person fight for their innocence when the media has made this person look like a horrible person?
“How would you feel if your son has been put on display as this horrible person, how would you feel?” Mrs. Miller added. “You know everyone in town know what’s going on. How would you feel?”
She is quiet for a moment, waiting for an answer that can not be easily given.
It is just a glimpse into what will likely be an emotional trial when it begins later this year.