Sunday, February 25, 2007

Underage sex: Authorities grapple with consequences

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This is so draconian! They became both victim and offender at the same time. People have sex at young age folks! When did you first have sex?

There are thousands of sexually active high school students in Sheboygan County — assuming national and state trends hold true locally — but many of those students are unaware their consensual sexual encounters are prosecutable offenses.

The charges aren't common because the encounters generally aren't reported, but some students say it's not right to charge anyone just because they are underage.

"I think that's up to the kids," said Jeff Haas, a 17-year-old junior at Sheboygan North High School. "I don't think the law should matter that much."

Chelsea Verbanc, 19, of Random Lake, agreed.

"I think (the law) should be more lenient because if it's consensual between both of them, they should be able to do it," said Verbanc, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan. Authorities "are not going to be able to stop the teens. It they want to have sex, they're going to, whether it's legal or not."

State law, however, is straightforward. Anyone who has sex with someone under 18 years of age is guilty of a crime, a felony if the other person is 15 or younger, regardless of consent.

This means cases involving rape and those involving consensual sexual contact are often charged identically, with prosecutors given discretion to pursue substantial penalties for the former and offer plea deals for the latter.

"We can't ignore these things — we have to charge them," said Sheboygan County District Attorney Joe DeCecco. "We take into consideration (if) it was consensual in nature, they were close in age … whether they had an ongoing relationship."

But initially, he said, "We have to charge with what we can legally charge."

Last year, 31 people in Sheboygan County were charged with sexual assault of a child between the ages of 13 and 15, DeCecco said. Nearly all of those were for consensual encounters, with three-quarters of those charged age 21 or younger. More than one-third of those charged were 16 or 17 years old.

An additional 10 people were charged with sexual assault of a child age 16 or 17, and again, the vast majority involved consensual contact, DeCecco said.

Cases often charged the same regardless of age, consent

Since statutes governing underage sex do not require prosecutors to prove consent — those under age 18 cannot legally consent to sex — the same charges can be filed for vastly different cases.

Jason Lee, 22, was charged Jan. 10 with second-degree sexual assault for impregnating his 16-year-old wife when she was 15. In a plea deal with prosecutors, the charge will be dismissed if he stays out of trouble for a year and performs 25 hours of community service.

Under the agreement, Lee will not be registered as a sex offender, as is required by state law for anyone convicted of the felony count who is four years or more older than the victim.

DeCecco said prosecutors will pursue mandatory registration as a sex offender for all felony convictions — explaining that cases serious enough to merit a felony should also merit registration — but state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said he is hesitant to put any young offenders on the registry.

"I don't like the idea of 17-year-olds permanently being labeled as sex offenders," he said. "I don't think a 17-year-old with a 15-year-old consensual (sexual relationship) should be on the sex (offender) registry."

This could be an issue in three cases charged in the month after Lee that involved consensual sex but did not result in plea deals. In those situations, males ages 17 to 24 were charged for sex with 15- or 16-year-old girls. Those three — involving one sexual encounter at a party, one arranged via and one in which there was an eight-year age difference — are scheduled for jury trials in March or April.

The flexible statutes are the best arrangement, DeCecco said, explaining that once charges are issued, prosecutors can pursue major penalties or almost none, taking into consideration factors such as consent, whether there is a relationship, how close in age the parties are, whether a sexually-transmitted disease was passed and what the teens' parents think should be done.

"The problem is that when you get too specific in your criteria, there's always an exception," DeCecco said. "It's always different and you have to sit back and rely on your experience on these things."

Rep. Terry Van Akkeren, D-Sheboygan, said the laws are set up correctly.

"I think the state Legislature has done a good job of outlining it but (also) giving the DAs the ability to look at each case individually," he said. "We've tightened up in the last few years and made penalties stiffer, as it should be."

As to whether teens should be prosecuted in the first place for consensual acts, Van Akkeren said the age of consent won't be lowered anytime soon.

"The law has to stand on its own and not sway to what the culture is at the time," he said.

DeCecco said he knows authorities don't find out about most incidents involving underage sex, but every one that is reported is investigated, and each of those is charged if the evidence warrants.

But Grothman said the government is sending mixed messages about underage sex, specifically citing the state's Family Planning Waiver Program, which makes birth control accessible to girls age 15 and older.

"I think when one arm of the government is telling 15-year-olds to get on the pill and another arm of the government is saying it's a felony when a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old have sex, the government is sending mixed messages," Grothman said. "It's either horrible or it's not horrible, and the government can't make up its mind."

Solution is talking about sex

Given the number of underage sexual encounters likely going unreported, DeCecco said he doubts the cases that are charged serve as much of a deterrent.

"I really don't think that someone says, 'Oh, Tom got this charge for having sex with his girlfriend, I'm not going to have sex with my girlfriend.' I'm not sure that happens," DeCecco said. "Young people don't think that way."

Nationwide, 63 percent of students have had sex by the time they leave high school, according to a 2005 survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By that standard, about 4,400 of Sheboygan County's 7,000 high school students will be sexually active before graduating.

Ann Berg, a psychologist with the Sheboygan Area School District, said students are generally not ready for sex, as much as they may think they are.

"Typically, kids who are under 18 and even a lot of young adults in their 20s don't realize the personal ramifications of having sex outside of a very committed relationship," she said. "I think we should be as straightforward with kids as we can in terms of explaining beyond it's an illegal activity and explaining the emotional ramifications, the sexually transmitted disease ramifications."

Mary Jo Tittl, executive director of the Family Resource Center, said parents are primarily responsible for helping teens make good decisions about sexuality and the impact it can have on future relationships, schooling and jobs.

"When you make that choice to be involved sexually with another person, how do you make that choice, what do you base it on and what information do you have?" she said. "That's our job as a community, to give them as much information so they make a good choice."

Bill would allow past accusations in abuse trials

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After hours of debate, the Maryland Senate moved a step closer yesterday to passing a bill that would make it easier for prosecutors to present evidence of prior sex-abuse accusations in trials of suspected sex offenders.

"How many kids does a pedophile get to molest before we let the jury in on the secret?" Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat from Montgomery County and the bill's floor manager, asked the Senate during the debate.

The measure was given preliminary approval on a voice vote and may come up for a final vote as early as next week. If passed, it still must win approval in the House of Delegates, where similar bills have twice before been killed.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, would let a judge decide whether to allow a jury to hear evidence of past accusations of abuse that have not been proved through a separate court trial. According to Frosh and others, too many cases are being thrown out of court because the law does not allow for such evidence to be provided to the jury.

However, some lawmakers are concerned that the standard for evidence would be lowered too far and that the proposed law could lead juries to convict defendants for past accusations rather than the crime for which they stand trial.

"This bill has the ability to put people who are innocent in jail," said Democratic Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin of Baltimore County. "I am convinced of that."

Zirkin tried unsuccessfully to attach an amendment that would set up more specific standards that evidence of prior abuse must meet before being admitted in court.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat and public defender, said Thursday that the standard for admitting evidence of prior accusations would still be "much higher" than the typical standard for admitting other types of evidence. According to the bill, the judge would have to agree that the evidence is "clear and convincing" against the defendant before it could be used in the trial.

Still, others are worried that the standard for evidence is too ambiguous.

"It's bringing into question too much judgment on the part of the judge," Senate Majority Leader Edward J. Kasemeyer said after yesterday's session. "We seem to be stepping into a situation where you can have an unfair trial."

Current law allows evidence of prior allegations to be admitted in a limited capacity to show intent or a person's motive for committing a crime. If passed, the new law would allow prosecutors to use this evidence more fully to show a pattern of behavior.

Senate panel OKs sex predator bill

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TALLAHASSEEAttorney General Bill McCollum's bill to toughen penalties for sexual predators who lure child victims through the Internet is sailing through the legislative process.

Today, the Senate Justice Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the plan to add 50 more investigators, prosecutors and analysts to the three that the attorney general already has. The plan is set for approval on Friday in a key House committee, assuring floor passage in both chambers early in the session next month.

The bill by Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, expands the jurisdiction of the Office of statewide Prosecution to go after Internet predators. It also makes each contact with a child a separate offense, over a period of days or weeks, and toughens penalties for storing child pornography or transmitting harmful photos or other images to children.

Maureen Horkan, who heads the Jacksonville office for tracking Internet chats between adults and children, said that under current law, setting up a sexual liaison with a minor is usually punishable by only five years in prison. Under Argenziano's bill (SB 1004), the penalty could be 15 years and traveling to meet a minor for sexual purposes would be a separate offense, in addition to making Internet contacts.

Do 'safety zones' protect kids from predators?

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The answer is NO. The "safety zone" could be 50 or 100 miles, but if someone wanted to commit another crime, what would stop them?

How do you expect people to know if they are within the "safety zone"? They are not land surveyors! When the person re-registers, they should just tell them they have to move, and not arrest them. Everyone is acting out in fear instead of using what little of a brain they have to think things through. These laws will NOT prevent crime, and I do not see why the public cannot see that. Are they brain dead? Apparently so... Borkholtz is an old senile woman who doesn't know what the hell she's talking about. Why don't you go talk with some therapists?

HOLLAND -- At 48, Billy Nichols was hoping to get his troubled life back on track.

He has been in and out of jail over the years for assault and domestic violence, and he is listed on the state sex offender registry.

But, for the past two years, he stayed clean, recently working as a taxi cab driver and trying to save money. Then, he moved to a new home in August, a simple event that unleashed unanticipated consequences: Police charged him with violating a year-old law that prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school.

"I lost my job over this," he said, blaming stress for getting him fired. "There was just too much pressure."

Nichols is among several Ottawa County offenders charged under the "student safety zone" law since it took effect Jan. 1.

Police and state legislators say the law is working well, but critics complain it has little value in stopping sexual predators and often snares former sex offenders who are trying to do the right thing by reporting address changes to authorities.

"In my judgment, a person's residence has very little connection with his or her desire to commit illegal sexual conduct. The relationship between the crimes committed and living near a school is very small," said Holland attorney John Moritz, who has represented a handful of clients charged under the misdemeanor statute.

And he questioned why legislators chose a 1,000-foot buffer.

"1,001 feet and everyone's safe, but at 999 feet we're all in trouble?," he asked. "It's kind of an arbitrary law the Legislature saw fit to pass."

Moritz said many of the safety zone arrests happen when an offender moves to a new residence, then goes to their local police department to notify authorities of the address, as required by law. Police then plug the address into a mapping system that shows the 1,000-foot boundaries and issue charges.

His criticism appears to be a minority viewpoint.

The law prohibits those on the state's Sex Offender Registry from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of a school, unless they lived or worked there before Jan. 1, 2006. Those convicted of sex offenses after Jan. 1 have 90 days to move if they live near a school.

State Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, was one of several co-sponsors of the safety zone law.

"I have not heard one complaint, and I've been thanked by several constituents for this law," she said. "It adds another layer of protection for children."

Birkholz thinks the law is reasonable, even if it severely limits areas in some communities where offenders can live.

"I would think there is a real potential in some of the smaller communities for that," she said. "But being around children may be a huge temptation to some sex offenders. They are very strongly driven by urges."

Kent County sheriff's Lt. Roger Parent said the law has made certain areas of Kent County virtually off-limits to newly convicted sex offenders. In Kent City, for example, the location of schools make it difficult to find a legal residence.

"Any new sex offender might as well forget living there," he said.

Because the law carries several exceptions and some complicated issues involving the definition of "loitering," sheriff's supervisors and patrol officers were briefed on it. One controversial issue is whether a parent and past sex offender can watch his own child at a school sporting event or play.

"The letter of the law is, no, you cannot," Parent said.

Ottawa County sheriff's Sgt. Lee Hoeksema supports the law, but questions whether it allows enough leeway for unusual circumstances, such as someone convicted of statutory rape where the victim later becomes a spouse. In that case, the offender still would be prohibited from attending a school event.

"The law was written without a whole lot of input from law enforcement," he said.

The number of offenders charged in 2006 under the student safety zone law is unknown, although police in Kent and Ottawa counties say they believe it is small.

Records on the state sex offender registry show about 252 sex offenders live in the greater Holland area, 193 in Wyoming, 105 in Kentwood and 38 in Walker.

Nichols, of Holland, is on the sex offender registry for a 1999 conviction for fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. A police report shows he allegedly touched the breasts of a 35-year-old acquaintance and placed his hand up her shorts.

He also has a 1990 conviction for second-degree criminal sexual conduct, also a touching offense, before the registry took effect.

Nichols, fined $225 after pleading guilty to the safety zone violation, thinks the law is unfair to many offenders. He moved out of the home near Holland's Washington School shortly after filing a change-of-address form with Holland police and being told he could not live there.

"I can see if you raped somebody or something, then maybe the law should apply," he said.

Dr. Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist who created the Johns Hopkins University Sexual Disorders Clinic, is unsure the safety zone provides protection for children.

"There is really no evidence to suggest it does. This may simply make it more difficult for offenders to reintegrate into the community," he said.

Jessie's Riders tell Couey to beware

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Transcript that says child porn was found on his machine
John Couey about Jessica

This man is instigating death threats and should be arrested!

This kind of SH*T is why the registry needs to be removed from the Internet and cases like this need to have the media out of the picture. Imagine what this country will be like when everyone starts thinking like this, even the sex offenders? The public cannot handle the information in a rational way. This is just a reason for the government to instill fear in everyone and allow the people to hunt down sex offenders. Stop the BLOOD-LUST or the sex offenders, when backed into a corner, may start lashing out.... He hasn't even been sentenced, plus they say he's mentally retarded, and already the BLOOD LUST is flowing. These are the sick freaks the worlds needs to be worried about!!!!!! It remains seared in the peoples minds because the media keeps it there. Sick bastards!!!!!!!!!! What about the sick murderers who killed innocent children, or drug dealers selling your kids crack, or the gang members killing your kids? SICK, SICK, SICK!!! Why don't you joing the armed forces and help the whole country against people who want to KILL all of us?

On the two-year anniversary of Jessica Lunsford's disappearance, thousands of bikers called for retribution.

CRYSTAL RIVER - On the two-year anniversary of Jessica Lunsford's disappearance, thousands of bikers called for retribution.

Let John Couey dodge the electric chair, they said. Let him get off on a technicality. We'll be waiting.

"Pedophiles need to watch their backs," said Sarah Davidson, one of the estimated 5,000 bikers who turned out for the third annual Jessie's Memorial Ride on Saturday. "It's an eye for an eye in this population."

While bikers gathered to pay tribute to a slain girl, many couldn't help but fantasize about punishment for her accused killer, Couey, who is awaiting his trial in Miami.

"I don't want him to die; that would be too easy," said Davidson, of Largo, who has five kids. "I want them to turn him loose in the general population and let them bury him alive."

A murder like Jessie's, senseless and gruesome, remains seared in people's minds. Riders feel like it could have been their child. They're that angry.

"It tugs out all of our hearts," said Marcy Meyer, describing the feeling of solidarity in the biker community. "We haven't moved on. We haven't forgotten."

Just the opposite, in fact. This year's event drew more than three times as many bikers as last year's. Even organizers weren't prepared for the crowd.

Registration lines in New Port Richey snaked around the building, and riders thronged U.S. 19, some parking a half-mile or more away from the Crystal River Harley Davidson, the ride's end point.

"It felt like we were in a parade," said Dennis Curatolo, of driving up US 19. Supporters yelled and waved from the side of the road. People held up babies. "It gets bigger and bigger every year. It's amazing how it's still on people's minds."

Couey's trial has no doubt helped the cause's visibility.

Jury selection has dragged on in Miami for two weeks, and it will be at least one more before attorneys can present opening statements. Riders criticized the slow pace and defense's tactics.

"They have Couey sitting there acting like he's retarded, drawing dinosaurs," Curatolo said. "He knows right from wrong, and he needs to be executed."

Mark Lunsford's speech behind the Crystal River Harley Davidson turned into an impromptu anti-pedophile rally. While the activist chose his words diplomatically, others weren't so careful.

"He's not retarded; he's a damn criminal," said emcee Randy Akers, with Born to Ride TV and magazine.

Other speakers urged the crowd to remain vigilant and angry.

The audience roared in response, shouting, "Lock him away!" and "Let him hang!" along with, "We love you, Mark!"

Through all this, Mark Lunsford stayed calm.

But as he read a poem to the crowd, "Predators Forewarned," his quavering voice couldn't hide his emotion.

"Your time is short, your shelters few," he warned sex offenders. "Jessie's Riders are coming for you."