A Florida woman who has already spent nearly three years in jail for posting racy breastfeeding videos on YouTube was acquitted on 33 out of 34 charges earlier this week. A Tallahassee jury of six found Leigh Felten, 34, guilty of one count of lewd lascivious performance, a second-degree felony defined as “intentional sexual performance in the presence of a child younger than 16.” In the 10 videos presented as evidence, Felton was seen breast-feeding her then-18-month-old son.
“I could not be happier, I think the jury did exactly what they were told to do or ask to do and that was to follow the law and apply the law to the facts and thank God they didn’t try this case over morality,” John Eagen, Felten’s attorney, said.
Felten has been in jail since her October 2015 arrest, and was denied bond several times at the behest of the State’s Attorneys Office, which charged the single mom with 45 sexual offenses initially, including several counts of capital sexual battery, or rape. Defined as “non-consensual oral, anal or vaginal contact with another person using their sexual organ or an object,” sexual battery involving a child under the age of 12 is a capital offense and comes with a mandatory sentence of life in prison. She was also charged with promoting a sexual performance by a child, possession of child pornography and lewd and lascivious molestation.
The case began when a woman in Wisconsin discovered her husband had purchased several of Felten’s breastfeeding videos and then filed a complaint with her local police department because both mother and child “were nude.” A Crawford County Sheriff’s officer reviewed some of the videos — a few of which had titles like “Good Little Boy” and “Mommy’s a Whore” — and then contacted law enforcement in Tallahassee; according to the police report, one video depicted “the female rubbing oil on herself and the child. At one point, the female’s vagina and the child’s penis appear to be in contact with one another.”
“[The video] was clearly not done for the purpose of education or artistic display,” a lieutenant with the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office in Wisconsin told Tallahassee authorities. “Based on the content, and the fact it is being sold by Felten, it is clear this video is for sexual purposes.”
Armed with a warrant, Tallahassee police searched Felten’s residence and found several more breast-feeding videos. An investigator also uncovered a Google Plus post written by Felten which advertised, “New unlisted vids for a donation. Please support a single mommy.”
In a motion filed earlier this year, Felten’s attorneys argued that Felten shouldn’t be charged at all, pointing out that Florida law protects the act of breastfeeding against prosecution.
“Ms. Felten cannot be prosecuted for anything involving her breastfeeding. Period. Full stop,” Eagen wrote. “That means that breastfeeding, no matter how ‘sexy’ or ‘titillating’ the manner in which it is done, can never be deemed to legally constitute ‘an unnatural or lascivious act, sexual conduct or computer pornography’ in the state of Florida.”
At a hearing in April, the defense tried to have the videos dismissed as evidence, arguing that they were protected free speech and unlawfully seized; by deeming them “child pornography” without a judge’s review, they told the court, investigators committed “a pretty bright line, clear constitutional violation.”
Assistant State Attorney Lorena Vollrath-Bueno disagreed, arguing that child pornography is one of the exceptions carved out by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“These videos are evidence of sexual abuse,” Vollrath-Bueno said at the hearing. “She created child pornography. She sold child pornography. We have a live victim of child pornography.”
Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey ruled that the videos were not protected free speech and denied the defense’s motion to have them dismissed as evidence. In October 2016, Felten’s attorneys sought to have Dempsey disqualified from the case because of her ties to the Catholic Church, but were denied then as well.
When the case finally went to trial this week, Felten took the stand in her own defense, and told the jury she regrets making the videos.
“In fact, I’m ashamed of them,” Felten testified. She explained that she suffered from depression and low self-esteem after her son’s father (who now has full custody) left her after she gave birth. She started making YouTube videos with her son, but what began as innocent breastfeeding advice for new moms moved into raunchier material directed at a male audience, which Felten described as “play acting” and a “silly little playful thing.”
“Finally, I was getting attention and felt like I had some worth,” Felten testified. “I’m not a monster.”
Asked if what she did was wrong, Felten replied, “I don’t believe it is criminal. Morally it was not right. I feel like I was overcharged.”
Ultimately, the prosecution’s case, which included playing the 10 videos in court, failed to convince the jury that sexually suggestive breastfeeding is akin to rape and child molestation. However, Vollrath-Bueno made clear her intent to seek the maximum penalty — 15 years in prison — when Felten is sentenced in November. Felten will also have to register as a sex offender for the rest of her life.
“Of course, I had a different view of the evidence than the jurors,” Vollrath-Bueno said. “I respect their decision and how hard a job they have. She will be facing 15 years and be a registered sex offender. I’m happy to say she lost custody of her son and he is safe.”