Friday, March 5, 2010

Chelsea King is a Case of Justice Interrupted

Convicted sex offender John Albert Gardner III, 30, from Lake Elsinore, Calif., pleaded guilty in May 2000 to molesting a 13-year-old female neighbor. He was sentenced to only six years in prison, and served just five.

Are you kidding me?! A violent sex offender only served five years in prison? How is it that such a plea-bargain passed legal and judicial muster? To me, it shouldn't have. It was merely a wimpy sentence for a heinous crime.

In 2000, Gardner allegedly lured his victim to his home with an offer to watch a movie, and then he violently assaulted her. From the time he was released from prison (in September, 2005) until his parole ended (in 2008), he had to wear a GPS-tracking device. And that's it. No long-term consequences, no long-term monitoring ... just a weak, five-year sentence and a measly GPS. And oh, yeah: Registration as a sex offender -- which apparently is supposed to be some sort of consulation prize. (I'm not bashing sex registries, but when the likes of Gardner and Phillip Garrido commit sex crimes after registering, one must question the system's effectiveness.)

Gardner is now being held in prison without bail for the rape and murder of 17-year-old high-school student Chelsea King. She vanished last Thursday after going for a run near Lake Hodges at Rancho Bernardo Community Park in San Diego, a popular park for runners. This was a rape and murder that could have been avoided. The very people who were supposed to protect us and ensure justice had had an opportunity -- and wasted it.

Today, authorities believe that they have found Chelsea's body near Lake Hodges. What a tragedy! Now police are looking for a link between Gardner and another Calif. girl who's still missing -- 14-year-old Amber Dubois.

Authorities have also said that Gardner was involved in an attack in December 2009 on a 22-year-old woman in the same park where King disappeared. (Gardner allegedly tackled the woman to the ground; cops say she escaped after hitting Gardner in the face with her elbow.)

Back in 2000, an official court psychiatrist had deemed Gardner extremely likely to be a repeat offender. This psychiatrist argued for a thirty-year prison term. For reasons unknown to me, the prosecutor pled it down to just six years. This was truly a system malfunction.

Folks, it's time to wake up! Sexual assaults occur in frighteningly huge numbers. And if victims survive the assault, they get re-victimized on the witness stand. National sentencing disparities are unacceptable. The plea-bargaining that goes on is a huge issue -- trust me, I was a prosecutor for fifteen years, and I saw stuff like this happen every day!

I have a lot of ideas for improving the system. First, there should be mandatory sentencing schemes nationwide. And once in place, these laws need to be USED. Clearly, there also needs to be better supervision of registered sex offenders. Money and time should be spent training professionals in this field. (This should include all officials involved: law enforcement, prosecutors, advocates, therapists, judges, and probation and parole officers.) Studies show that providing training and resources prevents burnout and inspires and motivates people in this line of work.

As an alternative to jail and/or prison, there should be live-in lockdown facilities created specifically for working with, treating and studying sex offenders. As with drug rehabilitation, there should be facilities where we can take a low-level sex offender off the street, both to ensure the safety of the public and to treat the offender -- or at least learn from him or her.

There are so many changes that need to be implemented. We need to make better use of new technology to provide enhanced supervision of registered sex offenders. Registered sex offenders should be subject to lifetime counseling, as well -- not merely during the term of their parole or probation. Offenders should also be required to inform authorities of travel.  (Gardner had supposedly been visiting his mother in Rancho Bernardo. He doesn't even live there.) For more of my ideas on how to reform our malfunctioning system, read my book, "It Happens Every Day: Inside the Life of a Sex Crimes D.A."

Gardner was not a low-level offender. He was a high-risk, violent offender, and he should have been put away for life. Period.

When an event like this occurs, it makes us question who's in charge. Who's protecting our kids? How can we keep our children safe? Sexual assault is disgusting -- we all can agree on that. And the murder of this young, innocent, darling, straight-A San Diego teen was truly horrific. Our hearts go out to Chelsea King's family and friends. But no amount of condolences can even come close to healing the pain her family must be feeling.

When will this type of preventable tragedy end?

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