Judge finds Island Lake woman guilty in 2016 'revenge porn' case
A McHenry County judge on Monday found an Island Lake woman guilty of distributing sexually explicit photos that her fiance received from another woman.
Attorneys gave closing arguments Monday in a nearly five-year-old case that had the potential to influence the state's revenge porn laws. Judge Michael Coppedge ultimately found 43-year-old Bethany Austin guilty of a felony count of nonconsensual dissemination of a sexual image.
According to the judge's ruling, Austin should have known that photographs she discovered on her now ex-fiancé's iPad in 2016 were not intended to be shared. One of the woman's attorneys, Wayne Giampietro, argued Austin had an "absolute right" to mail the photos in an attempt to defend her reputation against alleged rumors, but Coppedge disagreed.
"She was pursuing a purpose that was oriented toward vindication," Coppedge said in court Monday.
Austin was charged in 2016 under Illinois' "revenge porn" law after she discovered explicit photos of another woman in text messages on her fiancé's iCloud account.
The couple split soon after, and months later, Austin mailed a four-page letter that included screenshots of the text conversations and the accompanying photos to family and friends, court records show. Austin hoped the letter and its contents would dispel rumors, which she believed her ex-fiancé was spreading about the breakup, her attorneys said.
"The state apparently thinks that (Austin) has to sit by and not let anybody know what he was doing to her," Giampietro said Monday during closing arguments.
But Austin could have defended her reputation without distributing copies of the partially nude photos, McHenry County Assistant State's Attorney Kyle Bruett said in court Monday.
"She could have said exactly what she wanted to say in the letter," Bruett said.
When police questioned Austin about her involvement, she admitted to sending the material and provided a written statement, unaware she might have broken the law, Austin testified during a trial-by-judge last week.
Given the nature of the photos, however, and because the woman in them didn't know her messages were visible on a shared iPad, Austin's sharing of the images was nonconsensual, Coppedge said.
"It is wrong because exposing a person's body against her will fundamentally deprives a person of their right to privacy," Coppedge said.
Austin's case brought the state's revenge porn laws into question in 2018 when McHenry County Judge Joel Berg ruled Austin was exercising freedom of speech by sharing the photos.
Later that year, however, the majority of Illinois Supreme Court justices agreed that disseminating sexual images without consent is not a right protected by the First Amendment and the case was returned to McHenry County. Justices Rita Garman and Mary Jane Theis dissented, partly on the basis the law criminalizes the sharing of images based on their content.
Giampietro touched again on the First Amendment during Monday's closing arguments, claiming it was a "natural and expected outcome" that Austin would share the images. The attorney further argued Austin had a "lawful right" to distribute the in an attempt to defend her reputation against "defamatory" rumors, particularly since no one explicitly told Austin the photographs were "secret."
"There's not one shred of evidence that anyone told Bethany 'do not send these to anyone,'" Giampietro said.
Nonconsensual dissemination of a sexual image is a criminal offense in Illinois and can be treated either as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances.
Austin, who declined to comment on the verdict, was charged with a Class 4 felony, typically punishable by as many as three years in prison.
She will remain free on bond until her June 24 sentencing hearing.