A week ago today, 14-year-old Samantha Kelly of Huron Township, Michigan, came home from school and hung herself. Why would a young girl take her own life? Over the past few months, her classmates at Huron High School had been bullying Samantha when they learned her family was pushing a statutory rape charge against an 18-year-old classmate. A police investigation found that the September incident between Samantha and Joseph Tarnopolski had in fact been consensual, but at 14 she was still under the age of consent. Tarnopolski was charged with third degree criminal sexual conduct and in the past several months, Samantha was getting taunted for accusing him.It seems the media played a big role in Samantha’s decision to commit suicide: Both Samantha and her mother went on local TV to talk about the accusations and Tarnopolski had repeatedly lashed out at Samantha on Twitter.
According to The Michigan Messenger, Tarnopolski had been tweeting about the incident and accused Samantha of lying. On September 28th, he allegedly tweeted, “All girls are, are liars and backstabbers! I hate you all. Way to ruin my life. Seriously, now this will be on my record for life!” On October 1st, he tweeted, “I’m facing a sentance [sic] of prison time. Up to 4 years seeing as how I am 18 years of age now …” On October 3rd, Tarnopolski tweeted, “You say I (expletive) your life up, but your the one who lies to everyone because your scared to get in trouble! You threw this upon me! Your idea.” One wonders why, if he had been accused of rape, Tarnopolski would draw further attention to himself by doing this. But it would seem that it worked as a rallying cry to get other students to turn against Samantha — which effectively identified Samantha as a victim of rape.
Then in October, a local TV station, Fox 2 News, interviewed Samantha and her mother, June Justice. According to Mlive.com, Samantha’s face was obscured on camera, but Justice was clearly identified — which also effectively identified Samantha. Justice criticized the school for not protecting her daughter and accused Tarnopolski of rape. On the newscast, Samantha described the incident with Tarnopolski differently than she had in the police report and an assistant prosecutor reached out to her to warn her that she had to be careful about presenting different versions of the story.
Justice later said that after the TV interview appeared, her daughter really started getting bullied at school. Apparently, Samantha committed suicide last Monday after “an especially brutal day of taunting and harassment,” as CBS News put it.
Tarnopolski told Detroit’s local news WDIV that it was Samantha’s parents, not Samantha herself, who were pushing the statutory rape charge. “It’s her parents that pushed it as hard they did,” he said. “They said I threw her down and all that stuff. It never happened. It was a mutual thing and I have text messages proving that.”
That makes me wonder why June Justice and her daughter would go on TV to discuss the rape accusations when it would only draw more negative attention. “We knew there was a cry for help from this mother who was desperate,” Huel Perkins, a Fox 2 anchor, said. “We made sure that Samantha’s face was shrouded. We asked the mother not to go on camera too, but she wanted to.”
Obviously, I think what Joseph Tarnopolski did was wrong and lashing out at Samantha on Twitter to accuse her of “lies” was especially immature. But what is especially terrible about this situation is now that Samantha killed herself, police dropped the statutory rape charge against him. “Our witness was the evidence and her testimony was going to be our evidence in the case,” said a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office. The bullies, presumably, will go back where they came from. How awful that Samantha Kelly took her own life before she ever got any justice.