Kwynn Gonzalez-Pons: Amend Utah’s ‘revenge porn’ law to prevent further miscarriages of justice

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather for a memorial walk on the track where University of Utah student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey used to compete on the two-year anniversary of her murder on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.

In some ways, Oct. 22, 2020, is the first time many of us released the breath we’d been holding for the past two years.

On the two-year anniversary of Lauren McCluskey’s homicide at the University of Utah, the U. settled with the McCluskey family, paying $13.5 million and making a public admission of guilt, owning their responsibility in Lauren’s murder. Finally, it felt like Lauren had received some justice.

It is a moment to celebrate, for sure, but the work is not done. There are still those who have not been held properly accountable for Lauren’s murder, namely former Officer Miguel Deras.

Deras was an officer on Lauren’s case when she reported the harassment she was receiving from Melvin Rowland, the man who later killed her, including his threats to disseminate explicit pictures of Lauren. In one of the many ways U. staff failed Lauren, Deras did not perceive these threats as serious, despite research showing that cyberabuse, including image-based abuse and sextortion, often co-occur with other types of in-person violence.

Campus police failed to do their due diligence to investigate Rowland, protect Lauren and vet her threats. Instead, Deras leveraged her images as clout among his male colleagues, bragging about having them in his possession. What Rowland threatened to do, Deras carried out.

As someone tasked with protecting the public, he deserves to be held accountable for these actions. Instead, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced his will not press charges against Deras under Utah’s “revenge porn” statute because they cannot prove Lauren was harmed by his actions, as she is deceased.

The announcement is frustrating, but worse than that, it’s harmful. Future victims of image-based abuses will wonder, if I go to law enforcement officers for help, will they take me seriously, or will they share these images with their co-workers, further violating my dignity and privacy?

It’s time for the Utah Legislature to amend the state’s revenge porn laws so that others like Deras do not go unpunished.

Changes should include:

1) Allowing for third parties to file on behalf of a revenge porn victim should the victim be unable to describe the harm the distribution cause.

2) Amending current language that adds, in addition to intent to cause emotional distress or harm to the victim, people can be held accountable under this legislation if they:

a) Hold a position of authority and distribute explicit content outside the purview of their formal role.

b) Or distribute explicit content with intent to boast or gain clout at the victim’s expense.

Kwynn Gonzalez-Pons

Kwynn Gonzalez-Pons is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Social Work at the University of Utah and an advisory board member at the McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention.