Mount Vernon’s news coverage of the sexual battery and indecency charges against former deputy Jason Hess failed us.
The county prosecutor reportedly commented that Hess’s case was dropped because witnesses did not “stay in touch.” This was outright victim blaming. But Knox Pages did not ask whether prosecutors offer victims protection if they testify publicly against law enforcement officers, or report how Knox County showed indifference to Hess’s victims. Signs of such indifference included:
Women at the jail reported that Hess bought oral sex from and exposed himself to inmates. But at a 2018 disciplinary hearing, the sheriff’s office only “established” that Hess gave his phone number to inmates. They accepted Hess’ resignation on a technical violation of department policy, never mind sexual exploitation. Indeed, although reported incidents dated back to 2015, the sheriff only responded after the Prison Rape Elimination Act hotline alerted federal authorities.
During the 2019 criminal proceedings, the court allowed Hess to postpone his hearing numerous times. After nearly a year of postponements, Hess planned to plead guilty. He only withdrew his guilty plea the morning of his scheduled hearing.
Finally, Hess only spent one day in jail because his bond was set at 10% of $10,000. This was light for a sexual battery charge. Women charged for victimless drug crimes can have bonds of $20,000-250,000. Such women spend 4-8 months in jail awaiting trial before their charges are dismissed.
Knox Pages also did not follow up on the prosecutor’s claim that Hess’ misdemeanor convictions weren’t worth prosecuting. Felony convictions matter more in some cases (Ohio typically only decertifies officers for felonies). But misdemeanor convictions are not meaningless. Disciplinary records and dismissed charges can be expunged. This means Hess could get rehired as a law enforcement officer. A misdemeanor conviction would show up if anyone in Ohio searched Hess, and it would be hard to expunge because Hess committed a sex crime.
If the municipal prosecutor does not pick up the misdemeanor charges against Hess, it will reinforce what the witnesses in this case knew: No one will make an example of Hess because incarcerated women’s safety doesn’t matter to Knox County. The next time they are victimized (and there is always a next time), they will be just as terrified and distrusting of the criminal justice system as they were this time. Local news that fails to hold local law enforcement accountable will share responsibility for that tragedy.