When attorney Josh Healy picked jurors for death penalty cases, he used Lauren Kavanaugh, “The Girl in the Closet,” as his poster child for mitigating circumstances.
The victim of horrific sexual abuse, starvation and torture as a child, she had the background to make jurors consider a lesser punishment, were she ever accused of a crime.
Now Kavanaugh is 25 and in the Denton County Jail, accused of sexual assault of a child. Lewisville police said she admitted sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. The girl told police she had been in a sexual relationship with Kavanaugh for two months.
Denton County prosecutors are now faced with how to prosecute Kavanaugh. They must walk a line between protecting society and the girl but also accessing Kavanaugh’s past.
The abuse Kavanaugh suffered years ago isn’t an excuse, attorneys say, but it is a factor in how the case will be handled.
“You want to be angry,” said Toby Shook, a defense attorney and former Dallas prosecutor. “But in her case, there’s going to be sympathy because of the horrific abuse she endured.”
It was unclear Friday whether Kavanaugh has hired an attorney or had one appointed to represent her.
What will prosecutors do?
Healy said prosecutors will need to talk with the family of the girl who told investigators that she had been in a sexual relationship with Kavanaugh. Prosecutors needs to understand what happened to the girl, but the family also needs to understand Kavanaugh’s history.
“I’ve never seen anyone who has been through worse than this,” said Healy, a defense attorney and former Dallas County prosecutor.
Kavanaugh’s mother and stepfather, Barbara and Kenneth Atkinson, are serving life sentences in Texas prisons for injury to a child.
They both sexually assaulted Kavanaugh and forced her to live in the squalid closet where she learned to talk from the country music the couple played on the radio. Rescuers said the 8-year-old looked like a Holocaust victim.
Barbara Atkinson told The Dallas Morning News in 2002 after she was convicted that she blamed Kavanaugh for the abuse and called the girl “it.” The Atkinsons are eligible for parole in 2031.
The News profiled Kavanaugh in an eight-part series in 2013 that became a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Shook said Kavanaugh’s attorney should try to keep her out of prison and seek additional therapy.
“The defense obviously will use the horrible experience she had as mitigating circumstances,” Shook said. “They will try to help her avoid prison time and get lots of therapy and rehabilitation.”
Police say there could be other victims and have asked parents whose children came in contact with Kavanaugh to talk with them.
More victims, Shook said, could make attempts to avoid prison more difficult. He said it’s difficult to predict outcomes without more details about the allegations. A municipal judge has sealed the court records in Kavanaugh’s case.
The prosecutor will also want records documenting whether Kavanaugh has continued counseling.
“They will want to make sure she kept up with what she needed to do to keep functioning in society,” Healy said.
The defense’s job will be more difficult if Kavanaugh dropped out of therapy, Healy said.
If Kavanaugh is convicted and sentenced to prison, Healy said, it’s unlikely she would be sentenced to the maximum of 20 years or a number close to it.
She could also have to register as a sex offender if convicted. But the charge also could be changed to injury to a child, which doesn’t require sex offender registration, Healy said.
Depending on the specifics of the allegation and whether there are more victims, the defense could seek deferred adjudication probation for Kavanaugh. That’s a type of probation that could result in Kavanaugh not having a conviction on her record. But she could also go to prison if she violates the terms of her probation.
“As a prosecutor, your job is not to convict, but to seek justice,” Healy said. “In this case, justice could come about in many different forms.”