Saturday, June 24, 2006

"A vigilantes' charter? The bitter legacy of Megan's Law"

From The Independent (UK):

In the ten years since American states were forced to publish the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders, there have been a series of vigilante attacks. As John Reid considers a similar approach in Britain, Andrew Buncombe reports on a law which has had unforeseen consequences

Published: 24 June 2006

The mother of William Elliott insists her son was 19 and his girlfriend just two weeks shy of her 16th birthday when the couple had sex - behaviour about which people may have differing opinions, but which in the state of Maine was enough to earn him a conviction for statutory rape.

The information about the couple's ages was not available when a vigilante, Stephen Marshall, went online to search for registered sex offenders to kill. Instead, he simply read that in 2002 Elliott pleaded guilty to two charges of sexual abuse of a minor and had served four months in jail. Marshall was also able to access his complete address.

In the early hours of 16 April this year, armed with that information and two handguns, Marshall drove to Elliott's home in the small town of Corinth and shot him dead. The same night, he visited the house of 57-year-old Joseph Gray - also registered on the sex offenders list - and killed him as his petrified wife stood helplessly by.

"My son was not a paedophile," Elliott's mother, Shirley Turner, said. "He shouldn't have been labelled like that. All he wanted to do was to love that girl and make a family. [Without the registry] he'd still be alive today. I'd still have him."

The Home Secretary, John Reid, is currently considering new legislation in Britain to make information about registered sex offenders available to the public - introducing a version of what is known in America as Megan's Law. Meanwhile, here in the US - where the Home Office minister Gerry Sutcliffe is due to see Megan's Law in operation - a contentious debate is continuing about the wisdom and the effectiveness of making such potentially explosive information publicly available.

US public law 104-145 - the legislation commonly known as Megan's Law - was passed by the federal government in 1996 and required law enforcement authorities in each state to make information available detailing the names, addresses and identities of registered sex offenders. Each of the states operates the process differently, deciding for themselves what amount of information to provide to the public and how best to make the information available. Some states, for instance, only make available information about the most dangerous offenders, while in Maine everyone convicted of a sexual offence is listed.
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But in the past few years, the debate about whether or not to make such information available has taken on a new intensity after the murder and attempted murder of registered sex offenders by vigilantes who obtained their names, addresses and conviction details simply by clicking on the internet.

In addition to the two April killings in Maine by Marshall, 20 - who turned his .45 calibre Magnum on himself when police cornered him near Boston - two sex offenders were killed last year in Bellingham, Washington state, by a vigilante posing as an FBI agent. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, a man is in jail for the attempted murder of two other registered sex offenders in 2003.

Critics say that while Megan's Law may be well intentioned, there is a real danger of making the information about offenders too easily available to all.

"This is the only law I have seen that causes more violence than in prevents," said Jack King, a spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers. "There are a lot of versions. Some make sense and will only provide the block number of a dangerous, repeat offender. But some states don't differentiate if someone was caught urinating behind a pub and was convicted of indecent exposure."

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But there is widespread evidence that other registered sex offenders have suffered violence and - much more commonly - harassment and abuse. A study carried out in Florida and published last year in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice found that a third of convicted male sex offenders sampled had experienced "dire events". The study found that only 5 per cent had suffered assaults or injuries, but that the 33 per cent who said they had suffered negatively had typically undergone the "loss of a job or a home, threats of harassment or property damage". It added: "Some participants noted positive effects of Megan's Law, including motivation to prevent reoffence and increased honesty with friends and family."

Janice, the wife of Joseph Gray, says that her husband had always been honest with her. When they married a decade or so ago, she knew about his 1992 conviction for the indecent assault, battery and rape of a child. She declined to speak about the specifics of his offence, but said "it was not what it sounds".

Speaking yesterday from her home near Bangor, Maine, she told The Independent how she had seen Marshall shoot her husband. "I saw Mr Marshall standing at my window at 3am. I saw him execute my husband," she said, detailing how her husband had died in her arms after he was hit by two bullets.

After the killings, it emerged that Marshall had travelled to Maine from his home in Nova Scotia, Canada, with the names and addresses of 29 sex offenders obtained from the internet that he had saved on his laptop. The night he killed Gray and Elliott he had driven to the homes of four other registered sex offenders living in north-east Maine.

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