Grooms, who will be on probation for five years and who has been in jail since his arrest in 2014, will not have to spend another day in custody unless he violates the terms of his probation.
The sentence has caused a backlash online. Two days after it was imposed, a petition to the White House was created to seek the judge’s removal from the bench. The petition, which called Degeest a sympathizer for a “toddler rapist,” now has more than 7,000 signatures.
A similar petition to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), which has more than 6,500 signatures, called the judge’s sentence “immoral.”
But the county prosecutor, whose office reached a plea deal with Grooms, said much of the criticism was based on “grossly inaccurate” information that has circulated online since the 19-year-old was sentenced on Sept. 12. For one thing, said Wapello County Attorney Gary Oldenburger, Grooms did not rape the toddler, as reported by several websites, such as Inquisitr and Rawstory.
Grooms, whose arrest resulted from a child pornography investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, pleaded guilty in July. His sentence also requires him to register as a sex offender for life and to undergo treatment.
“While it is easy for the outside observer to advocate a hard-line stance that every sexual offense against a minor should result in a long prison sentence, anyone who actually deals with these situations knows that each case is unique and every case must be handled on its own merits,” Oldenburger said in a statement posted by the Des Moines Register.
In the lengthy statement Thursday, Oldenburger said several factors, including the victim’s family’s wishes that Grooms not be sent to prison, significantly influenced the judge’s sentence.
“While the Wapello County Attorney’s Office does not allow victims to dictate how we prosecute a case, the victim’s concerns and desires are taken into consideration in every case,” Oldenburger wrote, “and they had a strong influence in this case.”
Oldenburger told the Associated Press that his original intent was to send Grooms to prison for a long time, but the victim’s family preferred that he receive treatment.
Grooms and the victim are related, according to the Des Moines Register. The infant’s mother, who works at a residential treatment facility for juvenile sex offenders, supported the sentence, Oldenburger told the paper.
Grooms was arrested in March 2014, when he was 16, after federal investigators found a video of him engaging in a sexual activity with the victim. Authorities say two child pornographers from Ireland and New Orleans posing as a teenage girl tricked Grooms into doing the act. The men then recorded it without Grooms’s knowledge and posted it online.
Initial information indicated that Grooms described the act as “so hot” and that he planned to abuse another child, Oldenburger wrote. Authorities, however, later found that the pornographers were the ones who described the abuse in that manner and that they unsuccessfully tried to convince Grooms to abuse another child.
Oldenburger said that while Grooms’s action was “disturbing,” it should not be described as “raping a toddler.” The attorney told the Des Moines Register that Grooms was masturbating in the video. The teen committed the act “at the behest of two men” who have “perfected a technique of duping children into committing sexual acts,” Oldenburger wrote.
“They were so skillful and so persuasive in their efforts that they successfully convinced hundreds of children to engage in sexual activity while they surreptitiously recorded it,” Oldenburger wrote. “It seems highly unlikely that Grooms would have engaged in the abuse under any other circumstances or of his own volition.”
The victim, who was 1 year old at that time, was neither injured nor harmed, and was too young to be aware of what was happening, Oldenburger wrote.
“The child suffered no ill effects as a result of Grooms’ actions,” Oldenburger wrote.
Still, many in the public believe the sentence was too lenient.
“I think the judge needs to be removed from the bench,” Caya told the Ottumwa Post.
Caya’s group played a role in helping to catch Grooms, according to the New York Times. A picture of the teen was posted to the group’s Facebook page, which has more than 680,000 followers, when the Department of Homeland Security was looking for Grooms, who’s from Ottumwa, Iowa.
A separate White House petition, which has more than 15,000 signatures, is seeking the removal of another judge, District Judge Myron Gookin, who accepted the plea deal with Grooms in July. Degeest presided over the sentencing hearing.
A spokesman told the Associated Press that the judges are not commenting.
A few other sexual assault cases that involve convicted defendants who were not sentenced to prison have attracted national attention.
Most recently, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky’s decision to sentence former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to six months in jail sparked a national debate about campus rape and resulted in repeated calls for the judge to be removed from the bench.
In Indiana, a Marion County judge came under fire after he sentenced a convicted rapist to home detention. Marion Superior Court Judge Kurt Eisgruber sentenced David Wise to eight years in home detention after a jury convicted him of raping his wife while she was unconscious.
In Grooms’s case, other factors, including his age and recent Iowa Supreme Court rulings that shorten prison time for juvenile offenders, played a role in deciding his sentence, Oldenburger said.
Because he is young, Grooms can be treated and is not likely to reoffend, Oldenburger said. A lengthy prison time, however, would create more risk, he said.
“If Grooms was sent to prison for a long period of time rather than being sentenced to probation, he more than likely would be a greater risk to the community after his release (than) he will be after serving the sentence he received,” Oldenburger wrote.
He also said that a lengthy sentence would probably have been overturned on appeal. Even if Grooms had been sentenced to prison, he would have received more than 1,000 days of credit — which means he would probably have been paroled “in a very short time,” Oldenburger added.
Oldenburger’s statement does not address whether the alleged pornographers from Ireland and New Orleans have been arrested or charged.
The Department of Homeland Security had been investigating the two for posing as teenagers on certain websites and persuading children to perform sex acts via Skype. A call to the federal agency’s media office has not been returned.