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Court Backs 'Consent' Defense in Teacher Sex Case

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A teacher convicted of having sex with a 16-year-old student should have been allowed to raise the defense that the relationship was consensual, the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled.

The state's highest court ruled 5-2 Monday in Chase v. The State that teacher Melissa Lee Chase was wrongly convicted because a state law barring those who supervise students in school from sexual relationships with them did not preclude the consent defense.

Chase was a 28-year-old teacher at Harlem High School in Harlem, Ga., in 2006 when she had a romantic relationship with a 16-year-old female student, including at least one sexual encounter, according to court papers.

The age of consent for sex in Georgia is 16, although school personnel are subject to the state law, revised in 2006, that bars them from sex with those under their supervision. The 16-year-old was in Chase's class, but their romantic relationship began later. The girl testified that she had initiated and "pushed" the relationship with the teacher.

The state supreme court majority said the Georgia legislature did not explicitly bar a consent defense for school personnel, because it did include such a prohibition in another section of the law dealing with sexual-assault victims in police custody or those are institutionalized.

"If consent is no defense to a charge of sexual assault of a person enrolled in school, then the age of the teacher and the student have no effect on whether a crime has been committed," said the majority opinion by Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears (she of one-time buzz for the U.S. Supreme Court opening). "Consequently, a 30-year-old law school professor who engaged in a fully consensual sexual encounter with a 50-year-old law school student embarking on a second career would be guilty of a felony and subject to punishment of 10-30 years in prison. That result ... would be truly absurd and unjust."

Writing in dissent, Justice George H. Carley said "a statute enacted in pertinent part to protect students from exploitation by teachers is now almost useless due to the judicial imposition of a defense of consent, even though consent in these circumstances is commonly obtained by the very exploitation which the statute was designed to prevent."

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In Washington state, where the age of consent is 18, we just recently passed a law that expanded the time frame that makes sexual relations between teacher and student a felony. It now includes several years after leaving the environ where the student attended school.

I don't know that we've had to deal with situations that involve a student initiating and pursuing a relationship. The law doesn't speak well to that issue.

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