AUSTIN (KXAN) - He was 17. He said he had no idea she was 13. He said she toldhim she was 15. So when they went to bed, it never occurred to himhe was violating his state's laws regarding teenage sex. It alsonever occurred to him he should ask the girl for an ID. Her motherfound out and she took the news hard. She contacted police. Thepolice filed charges. Considerable legal wrangling ensued. The kidspent parts of two years in the Williamson County jail. Finally, astate district judge there laid down the law: Jean Ponzanelli washeaded to prison for three years. His partner was considered avictim. She was also considered a victim when another older manalso went to prison, also for having consensual sex with her. Sheremains free.
As for Ponzanelli, he has some real good friends, friendslike Jan Fewell, who met him through her daughters. She and herchildren went to bat for their friend, enlisting the help of media,lawyers and the public at large. Maybe it helped. Beforeprosecutors settled for three years behind bars, they had beeninsisting on eight. Small consolation for a young man who wasforced to quit school, enroll in treatment programs with hard-corepedophiles and ultimately, climb aboard a Texas prison bus for along and scary trip to what judges call, an "InstitutionalDivision" facility in Huntsville.
Fewell worked tirelessly on Ponzanelli's behalf. In theprocess, she came across many more people who were busy withsimilar campaigns. There was a national organization called,ReformSexOffenderLaws.org and a Texas group called, Texas Voices.Many of the members of both groups are family members of youngpeople, mostly men, who ran afoul of teen sex laws, even thoughtheir partners willingly participated and sometimes initiated thesexual contact.
The legal cases not only imprisoned the teenagers, they oftendestroyed the families of those convicted. In some cases,after leaving prison, the young men married their partners, hadchildren with them, and lived a normal life, except for the factthat they were listed on a state Sex Offender Registry. Thatcreates enormous roadblocks to them finding a job, locating a placeto live, taking their own kids to parks and other places wherechildren gather.
"The 20-year-old man who has had consensual sexual activity withhis 16-year-old girlfriend has broken the law," said Texas Voiceschair Mary Sue Molnar. "But, his offense is much different than60-year-old Uncle Joe who has molested his six year-oldniece. There's a huge difference here, a huge difference. Thelaw does not differentiate."
So Molnar, Fewell and hundreds of others are working withlawmakers in search of common sense reforms. In Texas, somechanges being talked about include:
- Reducing charges in such cases to the misdemeanor crime of "sexual misconduct."
- Dropping the requirement for listing those convicted on the Texas Sex Offender Registry.
- Removing those already placed on the list.
- Designing treatment programs for them that are separate from those conducted for hard-core offenders.
Lawmakers return to Austin in January. What will they do?Clearly there is pressure to appear "tough on crime," especiallysexual crime. Fewell, now a member of Texas Voices, admits tomoments of despair. Choking back tears, she said, "AfterJean, you know, was sentenced, and then after, you know, he wastransported, it was kind of hard, because I kind of thought like,this was a hopeless cause, that we're not going to make adifference. And, even my daughter told me, she says, 'You know,Mom, you can fight 'til the day you die and they're not going tochange the law.' I told my daughter I'll die trying."
Jean Ponzanelli is grateful. He's a bit busy thesedays, though, working as a janitor in the prison and counting thedays. That would normally be the end of this story, but in thiscase, there is one more detail: Ponzanelli's parents brought him tothe United States from Mexico when he was only a toddler. He saidthey never told him he was not an American citizen. He grew up inRound Rock, Texas, just north of Austin, living the life of anAmerican kid.
So, when he accepted a plea bargain, he checked a box on theform that asked if he was a citizen of this country. After thatplea deal was accepted, he learned he is a citizen of Mexico. Oops,too late. When Ponzanelli is finally released from prison, he facesalmost certain deportation to a strange country where he knows noone, has no friends and no prospects for a job or a life. Thequestion his supporters can't shake: Is this really what we want todo? Is it really?
Family and friends held a vigil Wednesday at the State Capitol in hopes that a Bastrop man can win a new trial.
An unusually cold blast of arctic air arriving early Thursday will be followed by an increasing chance of freezing drizzle/rain and sleet by Friday morning.
The HealthCare.gov website is working more smoothly for central Texans.
City leaders in West Lake Hills discussed the ongoing concern with the city's water system Wednesday night. The problems arise when water is needed most; fighting fires.
Federal, state and local authorities on Wednesday arrested 15 people and seized 70 firearms in raid on a methamphetamine operation based in Burnet County.
Former Georgetown Police Officer Stephanie Brown said her ex-boyfriend, former Round Rock Officer Eric Poteet, made up accusations against her after she broke up with him.