By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Thousands of people have protested against the prosecution of an 18-year-old Florida high school senior after her parents launched an Internet petition claiming she was charged with sex crimes only because her lover, a then 14-year-old schoolmate, was another girl.
By late Monday afternoon, almost 100,000 people had signed a Change.org petition or joined a Facebook group called "Free Kate" in support of Kaitlyn Hunt.
Indian River County prosecutor Bruce Colton said on Monday that he would not be moved by the public campaign because he said sexual orientation was not an issue. Colton said Kaitlyn was charged like any other adult for having sex with a minor.
"In most instances, it's a male and a female. But certainly I hope people aren't saying the law should be different because it's two females," Colton said.
Kaitlyn was arrested in February on two charges of lewd and lascivious assault on a minor, a second degree felony. Florida law prohibits anyone 18 or older from having sex with someone aged 12 to 16. If convicted, she would face up to 15 years in prison and be required to register as a sex offender.
Colton said he had offered Kaitlyn a plea deal in March in which the charges would be reduced to child abuse, a third degree felony; he would recommend to the judge a sentence of community control and probation; and he would not discourage the judge from wiping her record clean. The offer is good until May 24, after which they will move toward a July 15 trial date, he said.
Kaitlyn's father, Steven Hunt, of Palm Bay, said the deal was not good enough.
"My child is far from a child abuser," Hunt said, noting that the two girls met when Kaitlyn was 17.
Kaitlyn, who Hunt said participated on the cheerleading and basketball teams and sang in the school chorus, was expelled from the high school and is due to graduate in June through an alternative school setting.
The parents of the other teenager could not be reached for comment.
Hunt said he had tried to resolve the issue through mediation but that the alleged victim's family would not participate, leaving him no option but to go public. Hunt said he believed "100 percent" that his daughter's sexual orientation was a factor in their complaint.
In his Change.org petition, Hunt stated that "Kaitlyn's girlfriend's parents are pressing charges because they are against the same-sex relationship, even though their daughter has stated that this is a consensual relationship."
The investigation of Kaitlyn was triggered by a complaint from the 14-year-old girl's parents after they learned of the relationship at a school basketball game, Colton said.
The girl, who has since turned 15, told investigators about having sex with Kaitlyn in a bathroom at Sebastian River High School and at Kaitlyn's home, and cooperated with detectives by calling Kaitlyn on the phone, according to the arrest affidavit. Kaitlyn admitted to the relationship after her arrest, the report said.
Hunt said his daughter never thought about their age difference in part because he said the 14-year-old was physically larger than his daughter and they played on the varsity basketball team together.
(Editing by David Adams, Toni Reinhold)