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    Boy avoids felony in teen sex case

    Charged with a sex crime for impregnating his 15-year-old girlfriend, the young man pleads to a misdemeanor charge.

    [Times photos: Scott Keeler]
    "I'm sorry it had to go this far," Kerri Smith, center, said Friday outside the courtroom. She is flanked by, from left, guardians Melody and Andy Tilman, and her father Mark Smith.

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001


    photo
    "I'm very relieved," Joey Stellini said Friday after a plea agreement with prosecutors avoided a trial on felony sex charges.
    LARGO -- The teenagers sat in the same room for the first time in months. But things were different. Now, there were no words, no glances, no gushy love notes about an undying love.

    Joey Stellini and his former girlfriend, Kerri Lynn Smith, sat on opposite sides of a courtroom waiting for a judge and lawyers to resolve what their families could not.

    Last year, Stellini, then 16, had consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. After Smith got pregnant, prosecutors charged Stellini with a felony sex crime, a lewd and lascivious act on a child under 16.

    On Friday, Stellini ended his case without becoming a sex felon.

    In a plea agreement with prosecutors, Stellini pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and so avoided a trial at which he faced imprisonment up to his 21st birthday.

    Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Marion Fleming withheld a formal finding of guilt during a brief juvenile court proceeding.

    The judge also sentenced Stellini to six months of court supervision, ordered him to get a job and enter vocational school, attend parenting classes, abide by a parental curfew, perform 25 hours of community service and avoid all contact with Smith.

    "I think it's no wonder that teenagers are confused about sex," Fleming told Stellini. "Children receive two kinds of sex education in school, one in the classroom, one in the halls. And I think we give them little guidance in making decisions dealing with their sexuality."

    The judge told him she hoped the sentence would allow him to become a productive adult. "You've got a big responsibility here," she said.

    Stellini's parents, Hope and Tom Rogers, are still outraged that their son was charged. Smith's legal guardians say they wanted the charge filed to stop the sex, and to force Stellini to get his life together.

    Prosecutors declined comment but have previously said the law allows the charge and said Stellini should be held accountable for having sex.

    "This law has a giant loophole that needs some cement in it so parents don't have to go through what we did," said Mrs. Rogers. "This was wrong. My son is not a sex predator."

    Stellini, a shy teen who likes cars and quit school because of a learning disability, had few words for the half dozen camera crews, including one from the news magazine 20/20, attracted to court by his case.

    "I'm very relieved," said Stellini, now 17.

    Smith walked out the courtroom with her legal guardians, Andy and Melody Tilman, and her father, Mark Smith.

    "I'm sorry it had to go this far," Kerri Smith, now 16, told reporters. She gave birth to a boy in April. "This has been blown way out of proportion ... It was a whole lot of pressure. Joey hasn't had to grow up as fast as I have."

    Smith said she regrets the sex and no longer wants to see Stellini, whom she blames for bringing the media into the case.

    "He didn't have to do this," she said as cameras surrounded her.

    The Tilmans said they agreed with the charge reduction, saying they had nothing against Stellini. Instead, they said they were just protecting Smith.

    "We had to do what we had to do to stop the sex," said Andy Tilman.

    Smith's parents are divorced, and her mother has said she gave up custody of her daughter to the Tilmans, the teen's aunt and uncle, so that she could get over financial and emotional problems.

    Stellini's attorney, John Trevena, said he thinks prosecutors reduced the charge because they recently learned in a paternity action filed by Smith that the girl had sex with an 18-year-old before she started dating Stellini.

    Prosecutors have never charged that teen. "That's grossly unfair," Trevena said, who is now raising doubt that Stellini is even the father.

    But Stellini admitted his paternity at a court hearing earlier this year and the family say doctors, based on the date he had sex with Smith, told him they are "99.9 percent" sure he is the father.

    Smith is raising her child with the Tilmans' help. Stellini says he can't see the child because contact is denied. The Tilmans say visitation could be arranged.

    The baby is doing fine.

    "He's getting cuter and cuter every day," said Melody Tilman.

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