Advocates for sex offenders take aim at registry, other rules

December 7, 2008 7:37 PM
Sandy Kennedy hates that her husband’s picture is on Maryland’s sex offender registry. 

Elected officials and victims’ advocates say tough sex-offender laws are necessary to protect society from dangerous criminals. But some offenders and their relatives, like Kennedy, see the restrictions as overly intrusive and unnecessary. 

Her husband has served his time and is a danger to no one, Kennedy argues. 

“In Salem, they had a witch-hunt, and in America, we’re still having a witch-hunt, and the witch-hunt is just different,” said Kennedy, a Parsonsburg nurse. “It’s the sex offender.” 

Kennedy runs a blog called Sex Offenders and Their Wives, where she vents about the difficulties of living with sex-offender restrictions and debunks what she said are myths about offenders, like the high probability that they will re-offend and their imperviousness to treatment. 

She also heads the Maryland chapter of the national group Reform Sex Offender Laws. So far, there are only three other members, she said. 

Out eight years 

Sandy Coulbourne, now 48, met Michael Kennedy, now 53, in 2007 at a bookstore. Both were browsing the murder mysteries. 

After only a couple of dates, Michael Kennedy sat his new girlfriend down and told her he had spent 20 years in federal prison for rape and murder before being paroled in 2000. He hadn’t done it, he insisted. 

She cried at the thought of an innocent man imprisoned for that long. The two married a few months later, despite his parole officer spending 45 minutes trying to convince her not to go through with it. 

People ask how she can love a killer and rapist, but the man she knows could never have done those things, Sandy Kennedy said. She can recite the details of his case, pointing out police, prosecution and witness errors along the way. In fact, it took three trials, with two hung juries, to convict him. 

She was spurred to activism when Michael Kennedy was required to register as a sex offender earlier this year, even though he had been out of prison for eight years. 

The directive to register came out of a recent federal law that Kennedy and other convicted sex offenders are fighting. 

She started reading about sex offender laws on the Internet and found that lots of offenders, their family members and some advocacy groups agreed the restrictions had gone too far. 

Human Rights Watch released a study last year arguing that registration laws are overbroad, that registries have led to violence and harassment against registrants, and that residency restrictions “banish[] offenders from entire urban areas.” 

Like Sandy Kennedy’s blog, offender-advocacy Web sites argue that the majority of registered sex offenders are not monsters who repeatedly kidnap and rape children — or, as Baltimore criminal defense lawyer Thomas P. Bernier put it, “some lecherous guy pulling 10-year-olds into a van.” 

Many don’t pose a continuing threat to children, Bernier said; some never did in the first place. 

Challenging the premise 

Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic and an associate professor of psychiatry, said sex offender monitoring laws and restrictions are predicated on the premise that offenders are more likely than not to commit another offense. 

Recent studies have shown that, at most, 20 percent to 30 percent re-offend, a lower rate of recidivism than other criminals, he said. (Other sources point out that different types of sex offenders re-offend at different rates, and that this statistic only covers reported offenses.) 

Annapolis lawyer Thomas A. Pavlinic said few offenders need to be monitored for life, although many are anyway. 

“There are these evil people,” said Pavlinic, who specializes in defending accused child molesters. “Those are violent sexual predators, people from whom the public has to be protected. There are a lot of people who have in the course of their life simply made a mistake, either with their own children or because of the age difference.” 

They “get treatment and then they never do it again,” he said. 

Sandy Kennedy suggested that the government register criminals with a higher risk of recidivism, like drug dealers. 

She said she is not opposed to all sex offender restrictions, just the pointless ones. 

“I’m not against totally what they make us do,” she said. “I know there’s a reason people need to be protected. But come on, that Halloween stuff was a joke.” 

She was referring to a widely mocked Maryland effort to get certain sex offenders to post “no candy” signs on their houses, turn off their outside lights and ignore knocks on the door on Oct. 31. 

The signs were provided not only to child sex offenders but to those registered as sexually violent. So Michael Kennedy received a sign, even though the crime for which he was convicted did not involve children, his wife said. 

Elizabeth Bartholomew, who runs Maryland’s Sex Offender Registry, said the effort was merely a “request” on the state’s part, designed to protect the offenders “so the community knows that they’re trying to make sure everyone’s safe.” 

Opposing the registries 

“Safe,” though, was not what Sandy Kennedy felt when a local newspaper published her husband’s name. 

“[O]ur hick town’s little newspaper, decided to use a full page to report every sex offenders name and address,” she wrote on her blog. “I’ve read about the vigilantes who prey on sex offenders. We are small town Delmarva and I could just see some red neck get his buddies loading up in his pick up and start working on the list.” 

Vigilantism is one reason some activists oppose putting offenders’ identifying information, including pictures, on Internet registries. 

Paul Shannon, a founder of Reform Sex Offender Laws, said registries encourage people to target sex offenders, citing the 2006 murder of two Maine offenders by someone who found their names online. (Shannon would like to see public registries abolished; information about truly dangerous criminals should be shared among law enforcement officials, who would decide whether to alert the community.) 

One of the men killed in Maine had served time for having otherwise consensual sex with his girlfriend when he was 19 and she was a few days shy of 16. 

So-called “Romeo and Juliet” offenders shouldn’t be required to register as child sex offenders alongside pedophiles, Shannon said. 

“Virtually all adolescent sexuality is now criminalized,” said Shannon, who said he is not an offender or ex-offender, just a civil liberties advocate. “This is a serious attack on children and their right to grow up.” 

ABC reporter John Stossel did a series earlier this year on offender laws gone overboard; among other people, he featured a man who had, had sex with his girlfriend when he was 19 and she was 15. Twelve years later, they are married with four children, but he must still register as a sex offender. 

Russell P. Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center Inc., said cases involving two consenting adolescents are usually dealt with less harshly than other sex cases. Judges often give statutory offenders probation before judgment so they do not have to register, he said. 

Besides which, he said, he is primarily concerned with protecting children who don’t have the capacity to consent to sex, not the older people who have sex with them. 

“If we have to balance the rights of pedophiles versus the rights of children, I’m going to balance those to protect children and not pedophiles,” Butler said. 

Legislators seem to feel the same way, said defense lawyer Bernier, a shareholder at Segal, McCambridge, Singer & Mahoney Ltd. 

“In general, the real problem is, any time someone in the legislature feels they haven’t done enough, they propose a law on sex offenses,” he said. 

He said sex offenders have begun pushing back against the regulations but haven’t gotten much traction. 

“Who wants to be the guy who wants to be known as out in [the] legislature championing sex offenders?” Bernier said. 

‘Opportunity to know’ 

Bartholomew, of the state’s Sex Offender Registry, said critics of sex offender laws actually have much less to complain about in Maryland than they would elsewhere. 

For example, some states prevent offenders from living within a certain distance of schools, daycares or churches, forcing them out of cities, into the country or even onto the streets. Critics say such residency restrictions ultimately do more harm than good by forcing offenders underground. 

In Florida, several sex offenders were famously discovered to be living together in a colony under a bridge because it was the only place where they wouldn’t be living too close to a forbidden landmark. 

Maryland does not have automatic residency restrictions, Bartholomew said. Judges can, however, order individual offenders as a condition of parole or probation not to live within a certain distance of a place. 

For those who doubt the necessity or fairness of registries, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein points to Richard D. Morris. 

Morris was a baseball coach about to take three of his players on a trip to Florida, according to a press release Rosenstein’s office issued earlier this year. A suspicious grandfather of one of the boys searched the Maryland Sex Offender Registry and found that Morris was a convicted sex offender. 

The trip was halted. The grandson told police Morris had touched him inappropriately in the past, and when police searched Morris’ home computers, they found child pornography. 

“The community ought to have an opportunity to know and therefore be alert to any sex offenders who might present a risk to other people,” Rosenstein said. 

Freedom to fight 

As a convicted rapist and murderer, Michael Kennedy is hardly a sympathetic poster boy for changes to the sex offender monitoring laws. 

Still, his wife tries. 

Sandy Kennedy said she started the blog and the Maryland chapter of Reform Sex Offender Laws so she could find other women who could relate to the experience of living with a convicted sex offender. 

“I can talk to my husband and I do a lot, but I thought it would be nice to talk to other wives or other girlfriends,” Sandy Kennedy said. 

Shannon, the national organization’s founder, said it’s typical for women who are close to sex offenders to advocate on their behalf. The offenders themselves don’t necessarily want to call more attention to themselves, he said. 

“These stories are absolutely heartbreaking,” he said. “The people who are carrying around the pain are mostly the women: the mothers and the wives.” 

Kennedy has her own pain. She said her sister, who didn’t know about Michael’s past, stopped returning her calls after his picture went online. 

Though Kennedy worries about her safety and that of her husband, she said she needs to speak publicly in order to bring change. 

“I figure he’s on the registry; how much more visible can you get?” she said. “I felt that if we didn’t want publicity, that we won’t be able to change the way things are. 

“We were trying to keep a low [profile], not being public,” she said, “until he registered and they kind of gave us the freedom to go on out and make it known, and fight some of the injustices.”

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