Luke Heimlich, very bad takes, and the problem with second chances

I am tired of very bad sports takes from men. And women. But mostly men.

I am tired of men who have very little experience with sexual assault, domestic abuse, and violence against women weighing in with their misinformed opinions on the legal system and how it works. On what evidence is credible and not credible. On who deserves second chances.

I realize that these men think it’s their job as sportswriters. It is not.

Let’s examine the recent case of Oregon State pitcher Luke Heimlich. In 2017, the Oregonian reported that Heimlich had pleaded guilty to sexually molesting his 6-year old niece in 2011. And let’s be clear, while Heimlich pled guilty to a single count of child molestation, the allegations against him were that he repeatedly molested his niece from the ages of four to six.

The young victim had reported Heimlich’s abuse to her mother, and the father later contacted authorities, according to a probable cause document filed by prosecutors.
The girl told investigators that inside Heimlich’s bedroom, he pulled down her underwear and “touched her on both the inside and outside of the spot she uses to go to the bathroom,” according to court records.
“She said that she told him to stop, but he wouldn’t,” the documents state, and that “it hurt” when he touched her.
Prosecutors initially charged Heimlich with two counts of molestation for incidents between September 2009 and September 2010, and between September 2011 to December 2011. In Washington, child molestation in the first degree is a Class A felony.
“She said that the first time the respondent touched her she was four years old and that she was six years old the last time he did this,” according to court records.

Heimlich pleaded guilty to the sexual abuse after working out a plea deal with his private attorney, in open court, before a judge, denying that he had been coerced or promised anything in exchange for his plea.

Heimlich acknowledged guilt in his own handwriting.
“I admit that I had sexual contact” with the girl, Heimlich wrote.

He was required to register as a sex offender, complete two years of probation, and undergo counseling.

Typically, when athletes are accused of violence against women, we are met with men, sports fans and media alike, asking “where’s the proof?” Demanding to know “If this really happened, why wasn’t he charged with a crime?”

In this case, we have a criminal charge. We have a guilty plea. We have an admission by Heimlich himself that he committed the act he was accused of.

And yet.

Since the allegations against Heimlich came to light, several baseball luminaries, including Peter Gammons and Royals GM Dayton Moore, who is considering signing Heimlich, have been going out of their way to defend Heimlich’s indefensible act. Behold:

That’s true,technically. But the spirit of the statement is intellectually dishonest. We know what happened officially, because we have a court transcript and plea documents and charging papers. We know what Heimlich and the prosecutors agreed happened. And it’s not a pretty story.

As for Moore, here’s a question he was asked by broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre in an interview aired on Fox Sports Kansas City:

“From what I’ve read, he’s done everything that the state of asked him to do, and he continued to pitch. Some think he’s a first-round, second-round type of talent. Somehow, his record became public, and now all 30 teams passed on him in all 40 rounds. I know you care a lot about people, you care a lot about character, and №1, what do you know about Luke Heimlich? And №2, what is fair and what is unfair about his situation?”

As far as I can tell, the only thing Oregon state did was ask Heimlich to pitch. Secondly, he didn’t do everything he was legally required to do. It was Heimlich’s failure to report in for his annual sex offender registry check in that brought the story to light in the first place. But here’s Moore’s response:

We were very interested in Luke last year. And obviously this accusation came out. So we immediately put everything on pause, as we should, to gather facts, gather information. He went out and performed this year. Not only did he achieve athletic excellence, he achieved academic excellence along the way. He went undrafted, all 30 teams. I think teams are still trying to find out more and more information. They’re trying to come to grips with this. This is something that happened in their family. Their family has dealt with this. Their family remains very close today, all parties involved.

The ramifications of talking about “gathering facts” and then limiting those facts to one’s athletic performance are problematic enough. But Moore appears to be making up facts at the end, implying that Heimlich’s family has forgiven him, which doesn’t appear to be the case:

The victim’s mother said she doesn’t understand why Heimlich has been allowed to play baseball at Oregon State. The Oregonian/OregonLive does not name the victims of sexual abuse and is not naming the girl’s mother to protect the identity of the child, now 11 years old.
“I’m appalled that the college he’s going to would even have him on their team,” she said.

Further,

The victim’s mother said she does not keep tabs on Heimlich but knows he’s one of the top players in the United States. She said her daughter was young enough that “she doesn’t really remember everything that happened,” but nonetheless has been ostracized from family events because most members of the Heimlich family have sided with Luke.
“He got two years of counseling and ‘classes,” she said. “My daughter’s life has been changed for the rest of her life.”

It’s also worth noting that it was Heimlich’s brother who brought his daughter’s allegations to authorities. He no longer speaks to Heimlich.

For his part, Heimlich has been afforded a redemption tour unavailable to sex offenders on a non-MLB path, receiving profiles in both the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, both which attempted to delve into the complexities of signing a convicted child molester to one’s team. As if there is anything complex about it.

Despite admitting his guilt before a judge in a court of law, before a judge, with an attorney as his side, Heimlich has maintained his innocence whenever he has spoken to the media.

In another life, I was a criminal defense attorney. I represented men and boys accused of raping and hurting women. I also represented men and boys who were railroaded into pleading guilty for reasons beyond their control. The concept of pleading guilty in order to limit the damage to the defendant is one I know well. I often said to my clients, “Sometimes the best I can do is to limit and control what is about to happen to you.”

At the same time, my clients were largely people of color. Because I was a public defender, all my clients were poor. Many didn’t have a support system, a job, a family that backed them. They definitely didn’t have the money to hire an attorney that could devote unlimited resources to their defense. They faced an uphill battle from the moment they were arrested. They were disposable in the eyes of the legal system.

Luke Heimlich likely saw a very different side of the criminal justice system. He had a family able to afford an attorney to represent him, parents who believed him over his 6-year old niece. He was treated like a true juvenile, kept out of prison, given a sweetheart deal. He was given a second chance the minute the prosecutors decided not to hammer him. That’s not the case for so many equally-deserving young men in the justice system. Do innocent people plead guilty? Of course. Does it usually happen to guys like Luke Heimlich? Not as often as Law & Order would have you believe.

What Heimlich appears to regret most are the lasting consequences of his guilty plea. Here’s what he told SI:

Throughout the judicial process, two words stuck in Heimlich’s mind: five years. After that, he was sure, “This’ll be like it never happened,” he says. “It’ll all be done… . So for those five years, or mainly the first two or three where I was in Washington and had to do more stuff on probation, it was, I just need to follow every rule to a T, and then when the five years come I’ll be fine. I was not doing anything to go out of my way to talk to somebody or confront anybody. It was, just, What do I need to do? Tell me, I’ll do it, and we’ll be good.”

What Heimlich wanted, ultimately, was both the plea deal that gave him a second chance, as well as people to believe he was innocent of the charges he swore he was guilty of. What has has learned, presumably, is that the genie of sexual molestation doesn’t go back in the bottle so easily.

Never mind that, before criminal charges were approved, the victim would have been subjected to medical exams, looking for physical evidence of sexual abuse, as well as repeated interviews by experts trained in ferreting out false allegations by children, as well as child psychologists who specialize in interviewing children of sexual abuse. Nevermind that plea deals in sex cases are often long, negotiated, drawn out affairs, with dozens of opportunities for the defendant to change his mind. Nevermind that those who deal with sex crimes involving children are often very good at what they do. We may not know what really happened, but I bet they have a pretty good idea. After all, they decided to charge him.

Heimlich believes his word that “nothing happened” should be enough. It’s an incredibly naive and immature view of the world and what he thinks it owes him.

It’s worth noting that, despite his repeated professions of innocence, Heimlich has not sought to vacate his guilty plea. He hasn’t claimed he was coerced into it. He hasn’t said it was involuntary. He hasn’t charged his attorney with ineffective assistance of counsel. He hasn’t sought to expunge his record. Heimlich simply wants the best of both worlds: The privileged treatment of a white man with means by the justice system as well as the presumption of innocence by the rest of the world. That’s not a luxury afforded to other convicted sex offenders. Neither should it be to him.

Speaking of immature views of the world, the men defending Heimlich and proposing that none of us know the real story reveal much about how they views crimes of violence against women, where the only evidence is often a victim’s testimony. I doubt guys like Dayton Moore and Peter Gammons would tell us we don’t know the real story if a player was accused of armed robbery or property damage.

The thing I haven’t been able to get past is why it’s so important to some men (and women!) that Luke Heimlich play baseball at the major league level. No amount of yelling ‘scarlett letter!” or saying “what should he do now? Kill himself?” hold any sway. As if the only two options Heimlich has in his life are baseball or suicide. As if millions of people in America, convicted of crimes far less serious than Heimlich’s, don’t struggle to put their lives back together afterwards. Would it be so terrible for Heimlich to get a job in middle management somewhere?

I believe second chances, when earned, should be freely given. To earn a second chance, the abuser must take responsibility for his actions, show remorse, and demonstrate that he has worked to mitigate and reverse the damage of his crime. To date, we’ve seen none of that from Luke Heimlich.

This piece was edited to accurately reflect Ryan Lefebvre’s question to Royals’ GM Dayton Moore and to add a hyperlink to Rustin Dodd’s story at The Athletic, which was inadvertantly omitted.

Julie DiCaro is a former attorney who currently works as a sportswriter and radio host in Chicago. You can follow her on Twitter @JulieDiCaro.