- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Do you know Cory Mashburn and Ryan Cornelison? If you do, don’t approach them. Call 911 and order up a SWAT team. They’re believed to be in the vicinity of McMinnville, Ore., where they’re a clear and present danger to the community. The two were recently charged with five counts of felony sexual abuse and the District Attorney, Bradley Berry, has pledged to have them registered for life as sex offenders.

Oh, by the way, the defendants are in the seventh grade.

Cory and Ryan are pupils at Patton Middle School. They were arrested in February after being observed in the vestibule swatting girls on the butt. Butt-swatting had apparently become a form of greeting at the school — like “a handshake we do,” as one female student put it. On “Slap Butt Fridays,” boys and girls would hail each other with a cheery application of manual friction to the posterior, akin to a Masonic greeting.

Don’t ask me why. The rear end seems to me to be far more prominent in society than it was back when I was a lad. There is a best-selling children’s book called “The Day My Butt Went Psycho” by Andy Griffiths. No, not Andy Griffith. There were no psycho butts in Mayberry. This Andy Griffiths (extra letter in the name) is an Australian. The U.S. edition was painstakingly translated from the original Aussie (“The Day My Bum Went Psycho”).

And speaking of psycho butts, former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards said the other day: “The biggest problem is my butt hurts. Is that normal?”

Gee, I dunno. Standing next to Hillary at the YouTube debate’ll do that to you. Oh, wait, my mistake. He was taking part in a charity bicycle ride with Lance Armstrong. “The Day My Butt Went Cycling.”

Anyway, whether from presidential candidates or best-selling authors or the protagonists of the movie “Jackass,” one hears a lot more about bottoms than one used to. Perhaps this is a poignantly freighted and highly literal image of Western civilization contemplating its own end.

Or perhaps I’m over-analyzing things and the middle-schoolers just decided one day it was totally cool, as is their wont. Kids do the darnedest things, as we said back in Mayberry.

But that was then and this is now. So, upon being caught butt-swatting, the two boys were called to the principal’s office and questioned for several hours by Vice-Principal Steve Tillery and McMinnville Police Officer Marshall Roache. At the end of the afternoon, two boys who had never been in any kind of trouble before were read their Miranda rights and led off in handcuffs to spend five days in juvenile jail.

Tough, but I guess they learned their lesson, right? Ha. The State of Oregon was only warming up. After a court appearance in shackles and prison garb, the defendants were charged with multiple counts of felony sexual abuse, banned from school and forbidden any contact with their friends.

I spent the entire spring at the “white collar fraud” trial of Conrad Black, the deposed media baron of the Chicago Sun-Times, the London Telegraph, Canada’s National Post and much else. A couple of weeks back, he was convicted on four out of 13 counts and now faces 35 years in jail for taking an improper bonus of $2.9 million plus “obstructing justice” by removing boxes from his office in Toronto, which is not in the United States. But with its usual ingeniousness the government successfully deployed a law never heretofore applied extraterritorially, except for witness-tampering.

Having had no previous prolonged exposure to the American justice system, I was interested to see whether the techniques used by the U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald were particular to that case or more widely applied.

The Oregon butt psychos make an instructive study. As in the Black trial, once the authorities had decided on their view of the case, other parties were leaned on to fall into line and play the role of “victims.” Of 14 other students interviewed by Officer Roache, seven (boys and girls) told him they had engaged in bottom-swatting themselves. Two of the “victims” said they had done it to others. At the initial hearing, a couple of female students spontaneously testified they felt very much pressured to conform during their interviews with Vice-Principal Tillery and Officer Roache. “Well, when the principal asked me stuff, I kind of felt pressured to answer stuff that I was uncomfortable, and that it hurt, but it really didn’t,” said one girl.

What does hurt? Attracting the attention of the district attorney. The prosecutor’s office reduced the counts from felony sexual assault (with which he had successfully charged a couple of other middle schoolers a year ago) to five misdemeanor counts of felony sexual abuse and five of sexual harassment.

With the boys’ respective parents already in the hole for $10,000 apiece in legal fees, the D.A. used the most powerful weapon in the prosecutor’s armory: cop a plea and we’ll make all the pain go away. In this case, that would mean pleading guilty in return for a probationary sentence. The terms of probation would prevent the two boys from contact with younger children, which would mean they couldn’t be left with their younger siblings.

The boys do not believe they’ve committed a crime, so they would like to exercise their right to the presumption of innocence — a bedrock principle of the English legal tradition now in great peril from American prosecutorial excess. Instead of letting the state bully them into a grubby, shaming deal, the boys would like it to do what justice systems in civilized societies are required to do: prove the crime. It’s a gamble: Those 10 charges each command a one-year sentence, plus lifelong sex-offender registration.

District Attorney Berry told Susan Goldsmith of the Oregonian that his department “aggressively” pursues sex crimes. “These cases are devastating to children,” he said. “They are life-altering cases.”

No, sir. The only one devastating children’s lives is you. If you “win” and these “criminals” are convicted, 20, 30 years from now — applying for a job, volunteering for a community program, heading north for a weekend in Vancouver and watching the customs guard swipe the driver’s license through the computer — there’ll be a blip and something will come up on the screen, and for the umpteenth time two middle-aged men will realize they bear a mark that can never be expunged. Because decades ago they patted their pals on the rear in a middle-school corridor.

A world that requires handcuffs and judges and district attorneys for what took place that Friday in February is not just a failed education system but an entire society that’s losing any sense of proportion. Without which, civilized life becomes impossible. So we legalize more and more aspects of life and demand that the district attorney police ever more aggressively what were once routine areas of social interaction.

A society that looses the state to criminalize schoolroom horseplay is guilty not of punishing children as grown-ups but of infantilizing the entire citizenry.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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