Megan's Law of unintended consequences

The recent killing of sex offender shows dangers of legislating punishment by ballot box
Patt Morrison, Los Angeles Times

So now two more lives are ruined.

Michael Dodele is rotting in a grave, and his neighbor, Ivan Garcia Oliver, is rotting in a Lake County jail cell; soon, by his own accounting, Oliver expects to be spending "a numerous amount of years" in a California slammer.

Dodele was a convicted rapist, a 67-year-old registered sex offender who had been living in a Lakeport trailer park for about a month when someone stabbed him to death just before Thanksgiving. Oliver is his accused killer, a 29-year-old construction worker who lived in the same trailer park. He was arrested with more blood on him than Lady Macbeth.

Dodele had spent two decades in prison or a state hospital for raping women, at least one time at knifepoint. The Megan's Law sex offender website -- which tracks most sex offenders, not just child molesters -- described his offenses as "rape by force" and "oral copulation with a person under 14 or by force."

Such a small word, "or." So easy to go right past it, especially when the scarlet phrase "oral copulation with a person under 14" sizzles off the screen. "Or"? Who cares about "or"?

Is anyone surprised that this death happened? Or just surprised that it didn't happen sooner, as it has in other states amid the froth of undifferentiated public and political fury about all sex offenders, from pathetic flashers to bona fide monsters who hurt children?

To get onto the Megan's Law website, I had to acknowledge a disclaimer saying that the state doesn't guarantee that the information is complete or accurate.

Not accurate or complete? Who should that alarm more -- the public or the 65,000 people listed? Some information may be rendered in hard-to-decipher legalese -- as appears to have been the case with that fatal "or." Some of it is flat-out wrong. I interviewed LAPD detective Diane Webb about it on KPCC radio this week. She's the coordinator of the LAPD's REACT -- registration, enforcement and compliance teams for sex offenders and Megan's Law.

Website mistakes, she told me, are sometimes as "mundane" as a "misplaced parenthesis in a code section," which can completely change the description of the conviction. Or they could come down to something as simple as the "capitalization of a letter" in the code, which would make a crime against an adult "show [up as] an offense against a child."

Who usually spots the mistake? The sex offender. "They oftentimes say, 'I'm not a child molester, this was an offense at an adult,' " Webb told me. Police verify it and let the state know the listing needs fixing.

There was evidently no mistake in Dodele's listing. But as Webb said, the penal code section for forcible oral copulation "is very similar to that of child molestation. They're oftentimes misinterpreted."

No politician ever lost votes by crusading against sex offenders. But voters don't always reckon on what happens after the votes are counted. Some of the same law enforcement leaders who persuaded 70% of us to vote for Proposition 83, which among other things mandates the tracking of tens of thousands of sex offenders with GPS for the rest of their lives, now worry that it's unenforceable. The law doesn't spell out who'll run the program or who'll pay for it. California is $14 billion short of this year's budget ante. Maybe we could all send in the money from our Monopoly games -- fantasy dough to pay for a fantasy law.

The Lakeport killing could shake some thinking about such laws. Suzanne Brown-McBride chairs the California Sex Offender Management Board, and she told me that the Megan's Law website is a useful community tool -- but it's only one tool. The point is "not to create vigilantism," she said, or to "have people then act out ... in a way that may put offenders and quite honestly themselves at risk." Vigilantism could make offenders "less stable." Oliver told The Times' Maria LaGanga that he had to take "evasive action ... any father in my position, with moral, home, family values, wouldn't have done any different." He'd seen Dodele watching his son, he declared, "fantasizing, plotting." When LaGanga told him that Dodele's rape victims were adult women -- not little girls or little boys -- Oliver said it didn't matter. "There is no curing the people that do it."

Is there any curing us? Do we have the judgment to take serious crimes seriously without plunging ourselves into policy hysteria? Can we acknowledge that no protection, no punishment, is foolproof? Can anyone suggest that we fine-tune Megan's Law, or conclude that Proposition 83 is goofy, without being labeled a friend of child molesters?

Dodele's name and crimes were listed on the state's Megan's Law sex offender public website; Oliver found them on a computer. Oliver was on parole for assault with a deadly weapon, but his name and crime were not on any such public website.

But just wait long enough. We may get around to voting for a website listing that too. Hey -- we can call it Oliver's Law. Like that?

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