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Texas Judge Orders Notices Warning of Sex Offender

5-29-2001 Texas:

CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. -- The former county appraiser was booked on three felony indictments, a senior school district official resigned and state legislators killed a plan to reorganize the Port of Corpus Christi, the city's largest commercial enterprise.

Out on Corpus Christi Bay, the U.S. Open Windsurfing Regatta began and the speckled trout started biting again off Indian Point.

Ordinarily, such things would be hot topics in the bars along Water Street and the harbor docks, but all anybody in this sunny coastal resort wanted to talk about last week was the sex offenders.

On May 18, a judge ordered 21 registered sex criminals to post signs on their homes and automobiles warning the public of their crimes, and the results were almost immediate. One of the offenders attempted suicide, two were evicted from their homes, several had their property vandalized and one offender's father had his life threatened, according to court testimony.
"It's totally shocking what has happened here," said Gerald Rogen, president of the Corpus Christi Criminal Defense Lawyers Organization, who represents two of the offenders. "It's frightening, as if we're going back to the times of scarlet letters, public hangings and witch hunts."

Although the state district judge who required the warnings, Judge J. Manuel Bañales, later reduced to 14 the number of offenders who must post the signs, he refused an appeal on Thursday to amend his order.

"They have only themselves to blame," Judge Bañales said.

The signs — "DANGER: Registered Sex Offender Lives Here" — give phone numbers for reporting "suspicious behavior." Bumper stickers have similar wording. A portable version modeled after the diamond-shaped "Baby On Board" stencils, complete with an adhesive suction cup, were provided to the offenders.

"Wherever they go," Judge Bañales said, "whatever time of day or night, we want people to be aware of where these offenders are." .

Judge Bañales said Texas laws requiring that sex criminals' pictures and addresses be posted on the Internet and in local newspapers did not go far enough in protecting children from sexual predators.

"A lot of people can't afford to go on the Internet, particularly in poorer neighborhoods," he said, "and some people just don't read newspapers."

Mr. Rogen, who is considering additional legal challenges to the order, said the signs were cruel and unusual punishment that would eventually be overturned by a higher court.

But many people here applauded the warnings.

"I think it's a great idea," said Adriana Quiroz, who lives in an apartment complex where a sign was posted. "This way everyone knows to stay away from that guy's place. Maybe we should have them for thieves and killers, too."

Samuel Holland, 25, a college student said, "If you're sick enough to molest a child, you're sick enough to have a sign out in your yard telling everyone you might do it again."

But Edward A. Mallett, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the range and variety of sexual offenses made measures like the warning signs fundamentally unfair.

"When we hear the expression `sex offender,' our minds leap to the worst possible case," Mr. Mallett said, "allowing politicians to demonize an entire group of people, some of whom made errors in judgment and others who suffer from serious psychological disorders."

Scott Matson, a researcher at the Center for Sex Offender Management in Silver Spring, Md., which is financed by the Department of Justice, said only Texas and Oregon had used the warning signs, and usually on a limited basis for high-risk offenders.

"This is the broadest application of warning signs that I've heard of," Mr. Matson said of Judge Bañales's order. "It's not unique to have signs, but it's certainly uncommon to have that many in one place."

There has been little research on the effectiveness of such signs, Mr. Matson said, and although many states require some kind of notification process for the neighbors of convicted sex offenders, balancing that warning with the privacy rights of the criminal is always an issue.

"The question is, What's the extreme?" Mr. Matson said. "I'm not sure that a sign in the yard is any worse than a newspaper notice or an Internet posting that billions of people can see."

For John Robert Lee, 34, the signs have proven worse. Mr. Lee — arrested on charges of indecency with a child in 1999 after a night of drinking ended in an encounter with a 15- year-old girl — was staying at his father's apartment on the bay last week when the warning sign went up.

That night, a stranger pounded on the door and angrily confronted Mr. Lee's father, who has since been evicted.

"The man said we shouldn't be allowed to stay around decent people," Mr. Lee said. "He said that we should go live in a cave." ...more... By ROSS E. MILLOY

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