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A Samoa News Editorial: The upside of cultural forgiveness

With the sa’o of the victim’s family speaking in support of the former teacher who pled guilty to raping his 13-year-old student — who was surprised at the outcome of the sentencing?

And when you stack on top of that an ifoga, hey what decision could the judges make unless they wanted to be accused of chipping away at the foundations of the faaSamoa?

So that’s the upside for the judges, they came out on the side of Samoa mo Samoa. Now what’s the upside for everybody else?

With this decision, we envision the Fono building surrounded with sa’o and family sitting under fine mats apologizing and pleading with lawmakers to throw out the mandatory 5-year sentence imposed for anyone possessing any amount of marijuana. And with any luck, maybe the family will only be out half a fine mat, and half of $500 — the monetary amount said to be given with the fine mats to the rape victim’s family. And… some of the overcrowding at TCF will be eliminated.

Now that’s an upside.

We don’t know yet what the outcome of the ifoga decision will have on future cases like the Siaumau Siaumau Jr death penalty trial. His family did an ifoga that was accepted by police Lt. Liusila Brown’s family, maybe his defense can bring this up and get the death penalty thrown out.

That’s an upside for Siaumau — no more death penalty on the table. And for the government, no more quarter of a million necessary to be spent on his defense. And ultimately that would be on the upside for us, the taxpayers.

So the ifoga defense sounds like a win-win situation for all of us. Well most of us anyway, we haven’t asked (and in the case of Lt. Brown, can’t ask) how the victims feel about it. 

But you know, we got to thinking after the sentence was imposed and the judges and the lawyers made their comments, maybe this decision isn’t really about the ifoga. It was not noted as a mitigating factor in the lighter sentencing by the judges and most of the talk appeared to be about money — restitution to the government and child support.

The government wants to be reimbursed for the money spent getting the defendant back to the territory after he fled to Australia and then to Hawaii to avoid prosecution — that’s $5,000 plus. Child support is $100 per month.

So the reasoning is, the sooner he’s out of jail, the sooner he can get to work and pay the government back and take care of the child that was the result of his “terrible and a serious mistake,” as Judge Richmond termed it during the sentencing.

Oh yes, there is the fact that the defendant is a teacher by profession and as a registered sex offender, it’s unlikely he is going to get a teaching job to earn money to pay back the government and pay the child support.  Let’s hope he comes up with big harvests from his new plantation. 

Nevertheless, the money angle sounds good for everyone. Except maybe, once again, for the victim.

Assistant Public Defender Mike White told the court last week that he spoke with the victim’s mother who asked for only two things — that the defendant not have any further contact with the victim; and that the sentence, whatever it is, “should be fashioned for a lengthy period so the victim can complete her education without any interference from the defendant.”

Doesn’t sound like the mother’s main concern was money — although the sa’o did make sure to mention during his court testimony that the $500, which was part of the ifoga gifts, was given in full directly to the mother.

However, when we mentioned the money angle to the Public Defenders’ office as a reason for the lighter sentence, we got the impression that they don’t think the money was the mitigating influence on the sentence.

We were told that the 28-month sentence is in line with sentences in similar cases here in American Samoa and even similar cases in the U.S. where the charge is not forcible rape, but what is known in ‘lawyer-talk’ as  ‘statutory’ rape or having sex with an underage individual. 

Which also got us to thinking, maybe this case isn’t about ifoga OR money. If 28 months is the normal penalty for adult males having sex with underage females, what happens when you flip it around the other way?

Remember Mary Kay Letourneau? She is the former Oregon school teacher who spent 7 years in prison after being convicted of the rape of a 12-year old male student in 1997. (BTW, the ’victim’ who is now her husband, is Samoan.)

This is where we’re going with this: It appears to us that in Samoan society and also Western society an older male having sex with an underage female isn’t viewed as being as ‘unnatural’ as an older woman having sex with an underage male. (In palagi-ese: these women are called ‘cougars’; in Samoan-ese: fa’amoepepe)

And with yet another twist on the sexes, it will be interesting to see how the case of the former ASCC male teacher accused of having sex with three underage high school boys (not his students) is resolved. If he pleads or is convicted, will he serve more than 28 months? 

But here we may be trying to compare apples to oranges; there doesn’t seem to be any money involved in this case, and being a palagi, he’s at a real disadvantage when it comes to ifoga (no family, no mats, no pleading sa’o). And certainly no societal approval of the sex roles.

But that’s digressing; we’re talking about the upside and the downside of court decisions and what we as a society accept as mitigating circumstances. 

But in all of this talk about what’s good and not good for ‘society’ let’s not forget that no amount of money, “I’m sorry”, or societal ‘understanding’ of the situation heals the harm to the victims. And in this case, add the betrayal of trust by a teacher with a student and her parents.

With this said, does it really matter if leniency came about because of ifoga, or money or fitting within acceptable sex roles?

However, it never hurts to examine our motives.