By Laila Kearney
SAN JOSE, California (Reuters) - Three teenage boys have been arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl from northern California who hanged herself within days of the attack after an image of it circulated online, police and her family's lawyer said.
Audrie Pott felt devastatingly humiliated by Internet exposure of the September 2012 incident, which occurred while she was passed out from drinking at a friend's home, said Robert Allard, an attorney for Pott's parents.
The three 16-year-old boys, who attended Saratoga High School with Pott at the time of the alleged sexual assault, were arrested on Thursday in Santa Clara County, about 10 miles from San Jose, said Sheriff Laurie Smith.
The boys, whose identities were not revealed by authorities because they are minors, were booked on suspicion of sexual assault by digital penetration and distributing a photo of a minor in sexual positions, both of which are felonies. They also face a misdemeanor count of inappropriate touching, Smith said.
Reuters does not name victims of sexual assault, but Allard said Pott's parents consented to allowing their daughter to be named in media reports.
The arrests follow public outrage over the sexual assault last year of a 16-year-old girl by two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio. That case and others like it have raised concerns about the shame young victims of rape can suffer when pictures of the attack are circulated among their peers via social media networks.
Pott committed suicide eight days after the alleged sexual assault. She had posted messages on Facebook that read, "my life is ruined" and "the whole school knows," Allard said.
"She felt that her reputation was spoiled forever," Allard told Reuters. "Imagine how you'd feel, through the push of a button, people know the most intimate details about you and they're taunting you and shaming you."
"It causes great damage, and in this case it led to her death," he said.
Allard said he planned to file a wrongful death lawsuit in the attack.
Marc Buller, spokesman for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, said his office was in the process of filing formal charges against the three boys but that because they are minors he could not comment further.
The investigation remains open and more arrests are possible, said Santa Clara County Sheriff's spokesman Lieutenant Jose Cardoza.
Allard said the delay of seven months between the alleged assault and the arrests may have stemmed from the reluctance of some students to cooperate with investigators.
Smith said her department confronted a number of legal issues related to investigating the actions of juveniles. "I won't be apologetic for why this took so long," she said.
Allard said Pott went to a friend's house for a visit that turned to drinking when she and others consumed alcohol taken from a liquor cabinet in the home. He said the boys arrived at the house after Pott had gone upstairs and fallen asleep.
"The boys accused of assaulting Pott were her friends," Allard said. "The trust that she had in her friends was just obliterated by what happened. Perhaps it was her view of life in such a positive way that made this so much harder for her."
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)