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List on Internet Leads to a Mistaken Beating - Thinh Pham wrongfully beaten as a suspected sex offender in Texas

11-29-1999 Texas:

Texans are tough on convicted child molesters not only in prison, where they often are targeted for special abuse, but also after they're released back into their communities. The state operates an Internet database that lists information about the sexual offender -- name, birth date, description, even shoe size -- as well as the offender's address. Local law-enforcement agencies contribute information and are supposed to update the files.

But a tragic occurrence in September has some wondering if such public access to convicted sexual offenders' records, particularly residential information, might be fraught with potential harm for innocents. A mentally retarded young man, Thinh Pham, 27, was attacked by four men who beat him unmercifully, chanting "child molester, child molester" as they rendered him nearly unconscious.

The problem is, Pham isn't a child molester. But he did live in a small Southwest Dallas home listed as the residence of a convicted sexual predator -- who had moved out more than a year ago.

"We have urged people to be careful on how they use that list," says Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, or DPS. "The sexual offender database is not intended to be used as a retribution tool. It is intended to be a safety tool for parents." ...more... by Hugh Aynesworth

Sex-offender list might pose problems
11-4-1999 Texas:
DALLAS - Faced with a choice between convicts' privacy and the public's right to know about sex offenders, the Texas Legislature sided with the latter.

The decision cost Thinh Pham his front teeth. Now, he fears leaving his home.

The 27-year-old Vietnamese refugee was attacked by four men who thought he was a sex offender because his address was listed on the state's Internet registry. But the address was that of a sex-offender who hadn't lived at the home for months.

The vigilante beating came in September, three weeks after the effective date of a new state law mandating more detailed sex-offender information be posted on a Department of Public Safety Web site. Previously, the state released only block numbers and ZIP codes of sex offenders.

Supporters of the measure said it would help parents protect their children from sex offenders living in their neighborhoods.

But Pham's case raises questions about the state's ability to verify the accuracy of a vast and detailed database. Top law-enforcement officials said they have little idea how much of the registry is accurate.

The incident raised renewed calls by critics of the registry who question the merits and fairness of publicly posting specific information - down to an ex-con's shoe size - on more than 20,000 offenders.

"It's a scarlet letter," said Frank Colosi, an attorney and member of the state legal committee for the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The problem with a scarlet letter is, what are people going to do?" Colosi said. "Are they going to keep their kids away, or firebomb or burn the person's house? If the result of this (registry) is a lot of violence, at that point the state might see it as unconstitutional, as cruel and unusual punishment."

State Rep. Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie, who sponsored a failed bill to put offenders' photographs on the Web site, said the information can be misused.

"People who are prone to crimes of passion may be enabled," Allen said. "But all this information has been available as part of the public record. I think this is an unfortunate tragedy of errors, but I don't think this kind of behavior will be (typical). I expect more self-restraint from people."

Pham, who has the mental capacity of a sixth-grader, was attacked after playing ball with some neighborhood children on Sept. 22. Police said four men punched him in the face as one yelled, "Child molester! Child molester!" Four of his teeth were knocked out in the beating.

The men apparently believed Pham was a convicted pedophile because the group home where he lives with four other disabled adults was listed in the sex-offender registry. The convict whose name was on the list had long since moved away, but the list was not updated. The home's address was removed from the registry after the beating.

Two men were arrested on felony charges of injuring a disabled person, and police have arrest warrants for two others.

Pham's smile will never be the same, and he fears going outside.

"I afraid I die," he tells a reporter in broken English while looking down the street from his front porch. "I afraid everybody here angry with me."

Tela Mange, a DPS spokeswoman, said the accuracy of the state registry depends on local law enforcers. She said some departments are better - and timelier - than others in providing updates.

"Local law enforcement has been doing some spot checks to make sure the information is up-to-date," Mange said. "They will do it as often as they can, but with 20,000 sex offenders, it can be difficult. We can't be everywhere at once."

About 100 people in the DPS special crimes service are working with local and state parole authorities to verify the addresses of the worst offenders. Once an offender moves, he is legally required to notify local law enforcement of a new address within seven days, Mange said.

Opponents of making the registry available online said Pham's beating won't be enough to spur a change in the law.

"It's going to take a reasonably prominent member of society to get lynched for this to change," said Jay Jacobson, state director for the American Civil Liberties Union. "When the government or the police department compiles this kind of list, they take on an added burden, particularly when they neglect or fail to remove names."

More than a dozen states post searchable databases on the Internet, often with photographs and a physical description of sex offenders. In Oklahoma, the Tulsa Police Department recently put its registry of 394 offenders on the Internet. Since the registry went online Oct. 8, more than 100 offenders moved, said Maj. Mark Andrus, commander of the Tulsa Police Department's detective division.

"We've come out very clearly on this - the public's right to know outweighs the privacy issues," Andrus said.

The site has had about 10,000 hits since it went online in October, Andrus said.

Mange said the DPS Web site, which includes databases for other types of criminals, since Sept. 1 has received 29,000 hits per day, mostly for the sex-offender registry.

Mange said she heard about vigilante incidents other than the Pham beating that might have been related to the Internet listings. But she could offer no details.

"Anecdotally I've heard that there have been, but I don't have any specifics," Mange said. "But the victims may have just sucked it up and not told the police."

Victims' rights advocates remain supportive of sex-offender registries.

"We support making effective the long-standing laws on open records," said Susan Howley, acting director of public policy for the National Center for Victims of Crime. "This is appalling that the Web site was not updated. There should be recourse, but I don't think that should be to repeal laws of society."

Mange agrees, saying the registry can be a good tool as long as its use doesn't extend to vigilantism.

"The database is intended to assist parents who are living in the neighborhood," Mange said. "If you are looking through the database, you need to take it an extra step and verify that information."

Conversely, officials said, it's a person's responsibility to alert police if his or her address is wrongly listed in the registry.

Pham said no one asked him his name, though he is perfectly capable of saying it.

"Thinh Pham," he said, his tongue peeking between the large gap in his teeth, around the edge of a broken tooth. ..more.. by Alex Lyda

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