Monday, December 15, 2008

There's no justice like Angry Mob Justice

Andrew Cunningham was a registered sex offender.

In 2000, he was arrested and jailed for unlawful sex with a 15 year old girl. Following his release, the 52 year old was added to the Sex Offender's Register, which gave his address as the caravan he lived in on a Wandsworth industrial estate. He was taken off the register in March.

On Tuesday night, presumably following information gleaned from the Sex Offender's Register, a 'mob' attacked Cunningham in his caravan, beating and stabbing him in the genitals before killing him and leaving his body in his trashed caravan.

Police are suggesting that he was murdered by a 'vigilante mob' who were attempting to exact justice against pedophiles and sex offenders they saw endangering the community.

Andrew Cunningham's death raises many, many issues.

As a parent, I'm understandably horrified at the thought of sexual predators living in my community. In America, there's even a website you can go to which displays the home and working addresses of those on the sex offender's list. It's alarming to see that three or four live within just a few miles of our home.

The fact that pedophiles and sex offenders live in our community gives all parents something to worry about. In the eyes of the state, these former jailbirds might have been 'rehabilitated,' and pose no danger to the community. However, the case which prompted public access to the Sex Offender's register in the first place - the rape and murder of seven year old Megan Kanka by a former sex offender - proves that just because a sex criminal has 'paid their debt to society,' it doesn't mean they've stopped posing a risk.

But conversely, just because somebody is a registered sex offender, it doesn't mean they do pose a risk to their community. In parts of America, a crime as minor as public urination can get you added to the list (and your address and picture published on a website alongside child rapists.)

Take 17 year old Georgia student Genarlow Wilson. He received oral sex from his 15 year old girlfriend at a student's party and was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison as a result.

Although a Georgia judge released him after two years, Wilson is still condemned to live as a 'sex offender' for the rest of his life, even though he's guilty of a crime no worse than what thousands of teenagers across the country get up to every weekend.

Just imagine - when Genarlow is a fifty year-old man, the Sex Offender's register will still list him as having 'unlawful sexual relations' with a fifteen year-old. To anybody not bothering to research the facts (that he was the same-age as his teenage 'victim' when they engaged in consensual sex) they might assume that he was a 'dirty old man' abusing a teenage girl.

By publicizing the names and addresses of local sex offenders, are we really protecting the community? Or just empowering people to deliver ill-considered 'justice' against arguably 'dangerous' offenders like Andrew Cunningham?

It's very easy to adopt a 'Daily Mail' attitude that any and all sex offenders deserve whatever they get - even if that's multiple stab-wounds in their genitals, like the late Mr Cunningham. But anybody who's interested in justice might consider the bigger picture.

They might ask themselves whether or not these people deserve to be endangered by having their personal information made public.

I don't have any answers about that. I'm certainly not an advocate for pedophiles and sex offenders. However, I do see issues that need addressing:

America's "Megan's Law," which gives people access to the database of local sex offenders (and it's equivalent abroad) stems from a real case of a registered Sex Offender living in a local community. He was guilty of kidnapping, raping and murdering a little girl. Clearly he was not 'rehabilitated' and posed a very real danger to his community.

That demands we ask:
  • Of the serious sex offenders released from prison to cut costs, make space or because of legal issues, how many are actually 'safe?' Wouldn't it be better all around (for both the sex offenders and their local community) if those convicted of serious sex crimes remained in jail? Can they ever be 'rehabilitated?'
  • How many people on the sex offender's register aren't really sex offenders? How long before a frat boy convicted of peeing in the streets, or an 17 year-old sentenced after having consensual sex with his 16 year-old girlfriend, gets caught up in misguided 'mob justice'? In the puritanical United States especially (sex toys are still banned in Alabama, for example) how many innocent people are being seared with the same brand as the most disgusting and dangerous of criminals?
  • What poses more of a risk to the local community? A solitary sex offender who's name and location is known to the public - or a violent, murderous mob performing the equivalent of an old-fashioned Old West lynching? Is that the sort of 'safe' community anybody wants to live in?
If life has taught me anything, it's that a person can be capable of acts of great goodness or terrible evil. However, 'people', when they're combined into a hysterical, screaming, illogical crowd, are universally just horrible, horrible people.

Should the names of addresses of Sex Offenders really be made public?

Can the public be trusted with that information?

Was society really safe from Andrew Cunningham, and people like him?

Did Andrew Cunningham deserve to be beaten, mutilated and killed for a crime he'd 'served his time' for?

Is the information about convicted sex offenders safer in the hands of police and local law enforcement?

And given that dangerous sex offenders are living amongst us - and some do re offend - can we trust the judgment of law enforcement, which released them, any more than our angry, bloodthirsty mobs?

Or, as Andrew Vacchss wrote in the New York Times, can serious sex offenders ever be trusted to live safely amongst other people?

"The obsession of sexual predators is typified in the case of Donald Chapman, a New Jersey rapist who was released in November after serving 12 years, the maximum for his crime.

He underwent continual therapy in prison, and was utterly unaffected by it. He vows to continue to attack women—a threat that reflects his total absorption with sexual torture. As a result of his threat, he sits in his house in Wyckoff, N.J., surrounded by a 24-hour police guard."


One Salient Oversight said...

Here's my solution.

Amalthea said...

I understand this post on such a deep level, did you know you can also be classified as an SO for mooning in some states? MOONING. A childish silly display of your ass, usually done all in fun.

I worked for a forensic psychologist for 3 years. She oversaw the outpatient treatment of sex offenders who were released from prison in H-, Texas. I have to tell you, I read all of their files. They each had monthly sessions with her (or more, depending on their sentence and release), plus they were required to attend weekly support groups. So many of these men were required to do this for things they had done as teenagers. Several of them had bogus charges. About 1/3 of them were actually TRUE sex offenders (I'm including any non consensual act), and of that third there were 2 child molesters as we would consider them in the true evil of the word (only one would have ever done it again though). Only 2 of them (1 being that child molester) were what I would consider a sexual predator, which to me is someone who if given the opportunity will seek to do it again.

It hurt me how some of these men suffered. Their lives were ruined, destroyed. And YES I do believe we all deserve, and our children deserve, to be safe from those 2 men who were predators. I don't know what the right answer is, but I think the public registry is wrong. I also think life sentences for all SO's is wrong. Perhaps there could be classes of charges and more designations of limitations for the crime and amount of time someone is in that registry. I think sometimes in it's zeal to impose structure and justice the law hurts more than it helps.

Chemical castration is a good option for sexual predators. They hate it, but giving them a choice of that or creating working prison situations for them (factory jobs with housing nowhere near schools, neighborhoods, etc.)... I don't really know. I do know the rabid anti SO response is wrong though. I've seen it in the broken men who came to my office and read it in the stories of their lives and talked it over with their therapist, my wonderful boss, who did all she could to separate the truly bad from the rest.

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