We’ve had our differences of late with Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, regarding education legislation. But we have to applaud Rucker for seeking to expand the West Virginia Computer Crime and Abuse Act to include adults. Currently, the law only applies to minors.
Rucker’s initiative comes on the heels of a wrongful-death lawsuit filed last week regarding the suicide of Denise Fernatt in August 2017. It is alleged that several people conspired to distribute semi-nude photos of Fernatt. The photos were somehow obtained and passed around digitally, and physical copies were posted in public areas in Eastern Kanawha County.
Those who allegedly participated knew that Fernatt had struggled with depression, and had attempted suicide previously, but went ahead with the plan, regardless. Fernatt was humiliated, lost her job and, eventually, jumped to her death from the New River Gorge Bridge.
Kanawha County Assistant Prosecutor Maryclaire Akers said she wanted to charge those reportedly involved but couldn’t under the bullying statute because it only pertained to children.
Other avenues for prosecution were blocked, as well. The state’s revenge-porn laws were a no-go because the photos, on a very thin, technical level, didn’t show enough “intimate parts.” Prosecutors also couldn’t show that Fernatt didn’t want the photos distributed, because she obviously couldn’t testify whether that was the case.
There were other angles, all blocked by technicalities that kept those who allegedly harassed Fernatt from facing any legal repercussions.
Beefing up the computer crime law would, hopefully, deter anyone else from doing this in the future or, failing that, at least hold them criminally accountable if they are, indeed, guilty.
Rucker called the Fernatt case “absolutely horrifying.”
“One thinks adults have enough self-control to not let things get out of hand like this,” Rucker told the Gazette-Mail. “I hate the thought of it, that anyone would take advantage of someone suffering from a mental illness.”
Here, Rucker is being a bit naive, but she’s not wrong. Adults should have the self-control not to bully or harass others, especially the most fragile among them, online or in person. But take a peek at any random Twitter feed, Facebook screed or rinky-dink spat between people running in the same social circles, and faith in adults acting like adults turns to ash faster than a field of flowers kissed by a flamethrower.
The United States provides great freedom in allowing its citizens to express their feelings and opinions. But when someone gets threatened, harassed, hurt or worse, that’s when the law has to intervene. As tragic as this case is, hopefully it can be the foundation for prevention of future incidents.