Georgia's Supreme Court this past week very likely handed a get-out-of-jail card to Melissa Chase, the former Harlem High School teacher and coach sent to prison for 10 years for a single, consensual sexual encounter with a 16-year-old student.
No amount of worrying about the downfall of society will change the fact that the high court agreed with defense attorneys, who said a loophole in a poorly written Georgia law allows teachers to have sex with a student aged 16 or older if the student says it's OK.
What has to be done, now, is to change the law as soon as possible. Until that can happen, school systems must make sure their policies are so strong that any teacher contemplating such an unseemly relationship would be giving their career a death sentence.
The unraveling of this law began in 2007 when Chase went before a judge for a bench trial on a single charge of having sex with a person under her authority. The law is written not just to keep teachers away from students, but also to keep guards away from inmates and psychotherapists from patients.
Chase's attorneys thought they'd found a loophole in Georgia law: While the law expressly prohibits the use of consent as a defense in other cases, it was silent about the use of consent as a defense in teacher-student cases. Rather than seek a jury trial, they opted for a judge to hear the case with that point of law as Chase's defense.
Augusta Superior Court Judge Carl Brown wouldn't allow the attorneys to raise the issue - even though the student was of legal age of consent, even though she admitted that the relationship with Chase was her idea, and even though she agreed to the sexual contact.
Brown convicted Chase and gave her the mandatory minimum punishment: 10 years in prison, followed by five years' probation and lifetime registration as a sex offender.
Chase's attorneys appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals on that same point of law and lost again. Then, joined by the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, they appealed to the state Supreme Court and won - big.
In fact, it's hard to see anything but exoneration for Chase in this sentence from the court's 5-2 opinion by Chief Justice Leah Sears Ward: "Under our reading of the statute ... Chase's conduct with (the student) was not a crime because (the student) was over the age of consent when the sexual contact occurred."
Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ashley Wright is studying her options in the case. But it seems pretty obvious if prosecutors attempt to retry Chase for the same charge, the defense will beat them senseless with that single sentence from the high court.
Even if she's released and her criminal record is cleared, it's unlikely Chase will ever resume her career. And she'll never get back the two years of her life that she's spent behind bars, a victim of her own poor judgment and a judge's erroneous ruling.
In the meantime, Columbia County school officials and school boards across Georgia had best take advantage of summer vacation. They must make sure when school resumes in the fall, high-school students will be off-limits to their teachers - even if we have to wait for lawmakers to catch up.
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