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Teen girl pleads guilty in sex case

Rape alleged at Laurelwood facility

POSTED: December 12, 2007 7:06 a.m.

Fearing the remote possibility of a life prison sentence, a 15-year-old girl pleaded guilty this week to charges in connection with the alleged sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl at the Laurelwood mental health treatment facility.

The defendant, who is not being identified by The Times because of her age, was initially indicted by a Hall County grand jury on charges of being a party to the crime of rape, child molestation, kidnapping and false imprisonment.

Authorities alleged that on Nov. 12, 2006, the girl pulled a 13-year-old female friend into a bathroom at Laurelwood in order for a 17-year-old boy to sexually assault her.

The female defendant pleaded guilty Monday before Superior Court Judge Bonnie Oliver to false imprisonment and enticing a child for indecent purposes. In what is known as an "Alford plea," the girl acknowledged there was sufficient evidence to prove her guilt at a trial without specifically admitting guilt.

The 17-year-old co-defendant, Benjamin Corey Pirkle, is awaiting trial on charges of rape and child molestation. He is free on bond. His attorney, David Fox, did not return phone messages seeking comment Friday.

Stephanie Woodard, the attorney who represented the 15-year-old girl, called the case "tragic." Woodard disputes the law enforcement version of the events, claiming the 13-year-old was a willing participant.

Gainesville police were not called in to investigate until a friend of one of the two girls told a counselor about the incident.

"These are complex issues for adults to navigate, much less children," Woodard said. "All of the individuals involved in this action are still in a very immature emotional and cognitive stage."

Woodard noted that the teens were at the residential facility for treatment of pre-existing problems. Her client was being treated for depression, she said.

"We're talking about individuals who were in compromised situations to begin with," Woodard said.

Woodard said her client only pleaded guilty because of the looming risk of a lengthy prison term if she took the case to trial and was convicted on the rape and kidnapping charges.

"That's why my client had to plea," she said.

According to a transcript of Monday's plea hearing, Oliver, the presiding judge, asked the girl, "Do you understand with the original charges you could have been sentenced to life in prison?"

"Yes," was her reply. The girl was 14 at the time of the incident.

Assistant District Attorney Wanda Vance told the court that the 13-year-old victim's family was in agreement with the negotiated plea.

"I discussed with (the) victim's family the possibility of prison time if we went to trial and I told them that the state would have concerns about putting someone so young as (the defendant) in prison, and the family also is concerned about that and did not want to see that happen," Vance said, according to the transcript.

Reached Friday, Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said the initial charges brought against the girl were appropriate.

"Under the facts and circumstances of the case, both the original charges and the eventual outcome were appropriate," Darragh said, adding that the victim's family agreed with the negotiated plea. Darragh said he couldn't comment any further because of the pending case against Pirkle, the 17-year-old co-defendant.

While Woodard, the girl's lawyer, felt her client was overcharged by prosecutors, she reserved her harshest criticism for Laurelwood.

"I think everyone is most outraged with the facility," Woodard said. "When it undertakes the treatment of children with problems and parents trust them with the care of their children, they are expecting an extraordinary amount of supervision and responsibility."

According to the transcript of Monday's hearing, at least two of the teens decided to meet for a sexual encounter in the bathroom because they knew there were no surveillance cameras there.

Vance told the judge that the defendant's Alford plea, in which she does not acknowledge guilt, might protect her from any "potentially civil issues here about Laurelwood's responsibility."

Laurelwood, which is a division of Northeast Georgia Health System, has not been sued in connection with the incident.

Northeast Georgia Health System spokeswoman Cathy Bowers said she could not comment on the case, citing federal privacy laws.

The girl, who attends an area high school, will be given probation and undergo counseling. She also is expected to plead guilty in juvenile court to child molestation. That charge stems from the allegation that she had sex with Pirkle in the presence of the 13-year-old girl.

In court, Vance called it "a horrible incident."

Woodard told the judge it was "one of the most frustrating cases I have had in my tenure as a lawyer."

"There were three kids in that hospital; I believe all three made bad decisions," Woodard said. "I think the hospital failed them."



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