A Wisconsin billionaire pled guilty to sexual assault of his stepdaughter, but was only sentenced to four months in jail on Friday. Samuel Curtis Johnson III, heir to the SC Johnson cleaning supplies empire, will have to serve at least 60 days of his sentence and pay a fine up to $6,000.
Originally, Johnson was charged with felony sexual assault of a child for repeatedly targeting his stepdaughter for three years. His stepdaughter initially told police Johnson was “a sex addict” and touched her inappropriately 15 to 20 times starting when she was 12 years old. She told her mother about the abuse in order to protect her younger sister, and Johnson confessed when the mother confronted him.
The felony charge carries up to 40 years in prison. However, the prosecutor said they had to downgrade the charges to a misdemeanor because the girl and her mother would not cooperate.
Johnson’s lawyers insisted the girl’s medical records be released to see if she had reported the abuse to her therapist, and a court held that the girl could not testify unless she released the records. The girl and her mother refused to release them, so the girl was barred from taking the stand. The case essentially fell apart without her as a witness, the prosecution said.
“Refusal to cooperate” is a common reason rapists go free, and obscures the difficult situations and complex power dynamics victims face when they come forward. Victims, especially children, are often traumatized and unable to navigate the rigid legal maze. They are penalized harshly if their stories change or if they don’t seem emotional enough. Sometimes they are even arrested if they try to back out. When the abuser is a family member, victims often feel conflicted about exposing them to a legal battle and face more pressure to back down. Indeed, prosecutors say the girl and her mother did not want to press charges against Johnson, whom they are likely dependent on financially and socially.
When the accused rapist is a powerful community leader, like Johnson, the costs to “cooperating” are even higher. In the now infamous Maryville case, prosecutors said they initially dropped charges against a football star because the victim refused to cooperate. That justification didn’t address that the victim had been ruthlessly bullied for months, her mother was fired from her job, and that the family ultimately felt the need to leave town.
Johnson is the latest symbol of how the justice system works differently for the super-rich. One wealthy heir who raped his 3-year-old daughter was recently sentenced to probation because the judge decided he “will not fare well” in prison. In another high profile case, a wealthy teenager successfully avoided jail time for killing four people in a drunk driving incident by arguing he had “affluenza” — that his rich parents had never taught him how to make moral choices.