For the second time in less than five years, a Wisconsin circuit court judge has raised a storm of protest over remarks made from the bench about a victim in a rape case.
In 1977, voters moved swiftly to oust Judge Archie Simonson of Madison because he said a teen-age boy accused of rape was "reacting normally" to the temptations of a sexually permissive society.
Last Dec. 22, Judge William Reinecke of Grant County in southwestern Wisconsin called a rape victim "an unusually sexually promiscuous young lady."
The young lady was 5 years old.
Some people believe Reinecke's remarks are more disturbing than those that cost Simonson his job, and a recall petition drive has started. But Reinecke's recall is far from a foregone conclusion.
The Simonson case was set in the liberal, highly political state capital. The scattered farming and river communities of Grant County, while only about 100 miles from Madison, are a world away in terms of political activism.
In that world, Judge Reinecke, 51, is a powerful man. A conservative Republican, he has been on the bench 15 years and is one of only two judges in the county.
The controversy began at the sentencing of Ralph Snodgrass, 24, convicted by a jury of first-degree sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl. After characterizing the victim as promiscuous, Reinecke said he believed she had initiated the incident.
The man, whom he noted had limited intellectual ability, "just did not know enough to knock off her advances," Reinecke said.
He gave Snodgrass 90 days in the county jail, with work-release privileges, and three years' probation. First-degree sexual assault in Wisconsin carries a maximum penalty of 20 years.
Concerned parents said Reinecke's comments indicate a "twisted" sense of values and warrant his removal from office. The judge's defenders, among them all but two members of the local bar association, said he is a fair, sensitive professional who has been pilloried because of "an unfortunate choice of words."
Reinecke contends the facts of the case justified his comments: "I don't understand what all the uproar is about," he said.
Court records showed the child had been exposed to sexual acts between her mother and the man, who was described as her mother's boyfriend. The incident occurred after the child jumped on top of Snodgrass, who had been sleeping nude while the mother was doing chores.
The assault came to light a few days later, when the child's kindergarten teacher saw she was in pain and took her to the school nurse. The nurse then contacted county authorities, who placed the child with a foster family in nearby Prairie du Chien.
After the sentencing remarks came to light, Peggy Biddick and another woman, Diane Barton, formed a committee to investigate the possibility of a recall election.
"As parents, we are frightened. A 5-year-old has no concept of sex or sexuality. He Reinecke cannot remain in office," Barton said.
The judge's friends and associates rallied to his defense. Attorney Mark Bromley publicly characterized Reinecke as "a hardnose when it comes to sentencing . . . tough on sex offenders."
But Reinecke's opponents point to transcripts in the Snodgrass case, in which Reinecke said the 90-day sentence was imposed mainly because Snodgrass had attempted to lie to the judge. "I think if he would have come in and admitted to me that he did this thing, he would have walked out that very day on the street under probation," Reinecke said in court.
Those who are closest to the child say the real tragedy of the case is the labeling of a little girl as promiscuous--a label that, in a small town, is likely to follow her the rest of her life.
Ted and June Steiner, the foster parents who cared for the child for five months after the assault, remember vividly the nightmares she suffered. They have taken in more than 70 foster children, many of them sexually abused, but June Steiner said this was the worst case she had seen.
"It was one of the most tragic cases I have ever seen. The physical and mental abuse she suffered was beyond anyone's ability to imagine," she said. "The child would cry out in the night, 'Why? Why did he do this to me? Why did he hurt me?' "
"Somehow they've made her the criminal instead of the victim," Steiner said.