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Cultural differences lead to criminal charges in Missouri

When the topic of cultural differences comes up in St. Louis, Missouri, most people think of the diverse traditions of the various ethnic groups that live in the city. Cultural differences usually do not result in criminal charges.

Unfortunately for one St. Louis man, criminal charges of statutory rape are exactly what he is facing. Police say that the man, originally from the war-torn country of Eritrea and believed to be in his mid-twenties, had a one-time sexual encounter with a girl that resulted in a pregnancy. The girl is believed to have been 12-years-old at the time of the encounter, and she is also a refugee from Eritrea.

Prosecutors have charged the man, with first-degree statutory rape, despite the fact that the girl and her family did not want to prosecute. Her family explained to authorities that in their homeland, this situation would be handled by village leaders, and would not result in jail time. If the man is convicted of first-degree statutory rape in Missouri, he would face a sentence of five years to life in prison.

A further complicating factor is that the exact ages of both the girl and the man are unknown. In order for the man to be convicted of first-degree statutory rape in Missouri, the girl would have to be younger than 14 years of age. But in the villages where the two came from, they do not adhere to a calendar or track children's ages.

Because of this, the judge at the man's bench trial dismissed the charge, citing the uncertainty of the girl's age. The circuit attorney, going against the wishes of the girl and her family, has appealed this dismissal. The man has been forbidden from contacting the girl or their 10-month old daughter while he is out of jail on bond.

It is very common for refugees, uprooted from homeland, to have difficulties adapting to American laws and cultural norms. It is doubtful whether statutory rape law is intended to address this kind of heartbreaking situation, given the cultural difference, the lack of clarity as to the girl's age, and the opposition to the prosecution by the girl and her family. If the circuit attorney's office exercised its discretion not to prosecute, the man could be reunited with his baby daughter.

Source: STLToday, "Culture, law clash in statutory rape case against Eritrean immigrant in St. Louis," Jennifer Mann, April 15, 2012

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