By BRIAN DICKERSON
Justin Fawcett was only 20 when his parents found him dead of an overdose in his bedroom at their West Bloomfield home.
But David and Gayle Fawcett believe that, in his own mind, their son's life had ended a month earlier, when Justin's probation officer told him he'd likely spend the next 25 years on Michigan's public sex offender registry for a consensual relationship he'd had years earlier with a 14-year-old classmate at Bloomfield Hills' Andover High School.
"He had a lot of stuff going on," Gayle Fawcett says, "but finding out he was going to be on the registry for a couple of decades did him in."
David Fawcett, who worried about his son's despondency in an e-mail he sent me two weeks before Justin's death, begged his boy to take the long view.
"I told him that people were working to change the law, and that someday they would," recalled David, who would later join a group of parents seeking such changes and testify before the state Legislature about his son's ordeal. "But he didn't believe me."
Mark of shame
Last week, a little more than seven years after Justin Fawcett's death, Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a series of bills that will allow some teenagers prosecuted for their involvement in so-called Romeo and Juliet cases like Fawcett's to escape the humiliating and life-stunting stigmatization that stalks those listed on Michigan's sex offender registry.
- Once again, the news media admits the registry is a life ending ordeal.
The changes will place those convicted of committing sexual offenses when they were younger than 17 on a nonpublic list available only to police. They will also allow some older offenders -- especially those who can satisfy the court that their underage sex partners were not coerced -- to be removed from the list, or escape registration altogether.
Some of those who may benefit have already spent years on the public registry.
Cheryl Carpenter, an Oakland County attorney who has represented dozens of juvenile offenders, is planning to petition the court on behalf of one client who ended up on the registry after he signed the birth certificate of the daughter he fathered with his then-15-year-old girlfriend.
Years later, after the father and his no-longer-underage partner married and had a second child, their first daughter was embarrassed when a teacher warning her class about sexual predators punched the school's ZIP code into the online sex offender registry and her dad's name came up.
"Her parents had told her her dad was on the registry," Carpenter recalled, "but it wasn't something the whole class knew, until then."
Attorneys say the legislation Snyder signed may help hundreds or even thousands of the state's 45,000 sex offenders escape a mark of shame that thwarts their efforts to find a job, rent an apartment or change their addresses without risking a reporting violation that could land them behind bars.
But the new law, adopted by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses, may extend and even exacerbate the price paid by many others convicted of nonviolent sex offenses.
Adopted to assure that the state remains eligible for millions of dollars in federal money that was made contingent on states following registration standards dictated by Congress, Michigan's law will also now require registrants to disclose online where they are employed -- a new requirement that will make finding work even more difficult for those whose sexual offenses are ancient history. Offenders will also have to disclose their e-mail addresses, passport numbers and vehicles, and face arrest if they fail to report any changes to police within three days.
Some teen sex offenders may also continue to face the threat of registration if they commit other, nonsexual offenses, as Justin Fawcett did after pleading guilty in the Bloomfield case.
"I'm not at all sure this law would have helped someone in his circumstances," David Fawcett conceded in an interview Friday.
The sex diary case
Like virtually every terrified parent I've interviewed since writing my first column about the subject in 1998, David Fawcett was stunned to learn that his son's trysts with another high school student placed Justin in jeopardy of being listed on the sex offender registry alongside violent rapists and serial child predators.
"I knew what statutory rape was," he said, recalling Valentine's Day in 2002, when a lawyer friend called to say their son had been arrested. "But I assumed that you could walk into court with the girl, and if she said it was consensual, they would slap you on the wrist. I didn't know it was something that could brand a teenager for decades."
To make matters worse, the case in which Justin was charged was attended by extraordinary publicity.
- It usually is, the media zoom in like vulchers, for anything related to sex offenders.
Launched when the parents of the 14-year-old Andover girl provided prosecutors with a diary recounting their daughter's encounters with as many as 22 partners, many of them fellow students, the case eventually yielded felony criminal sexual conduct charges against Justin and four other males. All but one of them had been teenagers themselves when they got involved with the girl.
Then-Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca fought to withhold the girl's diary from the defendants' attorneys, but Bloomfield Hills District Judge Kimberly Small ultimately ordered its release. In the diary and a subsequent interview with the Free Press, the 14-year-old speculated that she herself had been "the predator," pursuing young men "who themselves were victims of misplaced confidence."
After a front-page Free Press story detailing the circumstances of the case, Gorcyca agreed to drop sexual misconduct charges against the four Bloomfield students. The fifth and oldest defendant fled to his native Mexico. All four eventually received probationary sentences after pleading guilty to reduced charges of seduction. The plea agreements were designed to keep them off the sex offender registry and won court approval with the blessing of the 14-year-old diarist and her family.
"Nobody wanted to see these young kids stigmatized for life," Meyer Morganroth, the girl's attorney, told me then.
But in 2003, then-state Attorney General Mike Cox told county prosecutors a recent appellate court ruling appeared to require that defendants convicted of any crime "that by its nature suggests a sexual offense against an individual who is less than 18 years of age" had to go on the registry. Early the next year, all four of the Bloomfield sex diary defendants were told they'd be placed on the public list, notwithstanding the terms of their plea agreements.
'A year in jail was nothing'
Justin Fawcett's codefendants had avoided further legal trouble since their CSC arrests, and all three were eventually allowed to withdraw their original pleas and make new deals that kept them off the registry.
But Justin, who had experimented with drugs before the sex diaries ordeal and developed an addiction to painkillers, was arrested on new charges stemming from his efforts to secure prescription drugs illegally. In 2003, after falling behind on his court fee payments and getting arrested for larceny from a vehicle, he spent several months in the Oakland County Jail.
David Fawcett hoped his son's time in jail would "wake him up" -- and for a time after his release on the last day of 2003, it seemed that it had.
Justin enrolled at Oakland Community College, where he carried a 4.0 average and earned praise from the dean of student affairs. He attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings and seemed committed to his sobriety.
Then came the news that he would go on the sex offender registry.
"A year in jail was nothing compared to 25 years on the registry," David Fawcett reflected Friday. "He thought his life was ruined."
"When he came back from that meeting with his probation officer, he was defeated," Gayle Fawcett agreed. "That's when he started doing bad things again, and he just gave up."
I'm not sure which is more horrible -- the thought that young Justin Fawcett might be alive if the law signed last week had been enacted seven years earlier, or my suspicion that other teens in similar circumstances will continue to bear the stigma of "registered sexual offender" into middle age and beyond.
- The same applies to adults. Many adults on the registry, are not a danger, and are stigmatized for life, find it hard to keep a home and job, and many give up as well. But apparently, because they are adults, it's okay to ruin their lives?
"We had another attempted suicide last Friday," reported Barbara Lambourne, a Michigan activist whose Citizens for Second Chances counsels and lobbies on behalf of registered offenders and their families.
In the latest case, she said, an 18-year-old tried to hang himself after his conviction for having sex with an underage girlfriend.
Lambourne suspects the 18-year-old may be eligible under the new law for removal from the registry -- if he recovers.
"In some respects, it's a good start," she said, "but we're getting a lot of panicked calls from people who are afraid the new reporting requirements are going to cost them their jobs."
Michigan already lists more people on its sex offender registry than all but three other states. We needn't condone youthful promiscuity or jettison the legal age of consent to recognize that many who were sexually irresponsible in their youth pose no enduring threat to society.
- And we need to stop treating all adult sex offenders as if they are all child molesting, pedophile predators.
The branding of teens and older offenders who pose no continuing threat to the public betrays not only our archaic hypocrisy about teenage sex, but also our devaluation of teenage lives. Michigan legislators have begun to take baby steps in the right direction -- but their work is far from done.