Joseph Meili's lawyer is praising a "just outcome" for his client in a case prosecutors slam as one of "willful ignorance." And the 22-year-old Missouri man's crime is a heinous one: Per the Springfield News-Leader and Washington Post, Meili pleaded guilty last week to third-degree child molestation after meeting an 11-year-old girl on the dating app MeetMe and having a sexual encounter with her in July 2017, after which she tested positive for chlamydia. Last Friday, however, Judge Calvin Holden decided Meili's crime didn't warrant jail time, giving him five years of probation and the chance to scrub the conviction from his record if he completes the probation with no issues. Meili had originally been charged with the felonies of child kidnapping, statutory rape, and statutory sodomy; prosecutors had wanted up to seven years in prison and 120 days in a sex offender treatment program.
Meili's attorney, Scott Pierson, says his client was tricked by the girl into thinking she was 18, and that Meili felt "horrible" about it when he found out the girl was just 11. Greene County Senior Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Elizabeth Fax scoffs at that assertion. "I think dating apps make it easier to get into these types of situations, to be sure, but to actually see her in person. ... He knew and just decided to go along with it anyway," she tells HuffPost. The Post notes Meili, who will have to register as a sex offender, isn't alone in Missouri in escaping prison time for child molestation cases: The paper counts at least three other similar cases since 2016, with victims ranging in age from 8 to 16—all overseen by Holden, per media reports, who has been the subject of online petitions to have him removed from the bench. (Read more child sex abuse stories.)