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The people's voice is angry: Outcry over sex offender's release fires up social media — but when does the fire get out of control?

8-9-2014 Iowa:

MUSCATINE, Iowa — When a 23-year-old Muscatine man convicted of lascivious acts with a child was released from prison after serving four years of a 15-year sentence, the People of Muscatine exploded.

The outrage began after a July 30 post that appeared on the People of Muscatine Facebook page began taking on a life of its own. The post by the page's administrator was asking about the release of Robert A. Howard from prison. Howard was sentenced to prison in 2010 after being found guilty of sexually abusing his girlfriend's baby son.

It didn't take long before responses to the post included death threats, graphic descriptions of bodily mutilation, and even jokes about Howard's arrest. The anger wasn't directed entirely at Howard. One post said that the child's mother should be "stomped." Another person, who posted a defense of Howard, was the target of outrage: "I guess Jessica needs to have her baby molested by this [man] to feel different."

The original post, and others after it, generated several hundred comments, nearly 50,000 views, and attracted the attention of KWQC-TV, who reported on Howard's release under the headline, "Child sex offender released early from prison."

What got lost in the public's outcry was the fact that Howard's release wasn't really early. He was released exactly when the law allowed.

The case began in 2010 when Howard, then 19, was charged with second-degree sexual abuse and child endangerment following a confession in which he admitted sexually abusing his girlfriend's 17-month-old boy.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison on the charges. The charges were punishable by up to 30 years in prison and he was not eligible for parole until he served at least 17 1/2 of those years.

However, Howard appealed the charges and the case eventually ended up in the Iowa Supreme Court, where the judges granted him a new trial because, according to court documents, "The Detective promised leniency for a confession, which was admitted during trial. The State failed to establish Howard was not prejudiced by the erroneous admission of his confession. Accordingly, the error was not harmless, and Howard is entitled to a new trial on the charge of child endangerment."

During the new trial, Howard pleaded guilty to the amended charges of lascivious acts with a child and child endangerment causing injury. He was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. He served four of those years at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility, a medium security institution designed for the treatment of men with character disorders, substance offenses, and sexual offenders.

Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren said that Howard was not released early but received credit for time served after his arrest in January 2010, and also received earned time, as per Iowa code.

"He will have essentially served the maximum time allowed under the rules for credit for earned time — 1.1 days of credit for every day served. He will be on supervised release for the remainder of his life. He will also have to register as a sex offender," said Ostergren.

Ardyth Orr, captain with the Muscatine Sheriff's Office, has handled county sex offender cases since 2009 and said that as far as prison time goes, Howard spent more time than most.

"What we see coming out of the Department of Corrections is that inmates are serving about 10 percent of the time they're sentenced to. I think that's something people don't realize," said Orr, who believes that the prisons are simply full so the DOC is granting earned time. "When you're the victim of any crime you want them to spend incarceration time that they were sentenced; it's very confusing to people."

The fact that Howard served what the law said he had to hasn't caused cooler heads to prevail online though. But, according to Lt. Jeff Jirak of the Muscatine Police Department, while people have to right to say what they want on social media, they should exercise caution.

"In all of our cases, we have to corroborate what people are saying, especially if it's over social media," said Jirak. "It's unlikely we would base a charge solely on what's being said on social media. Anybody can put anything out there; we try to police it the best we can but we have limitations. We certainly are interested in any death threats and assaultive behavior."

When contacted by the Journal for a response to the furor generated over the initial post, the page's administrator did not wish to be quoted for the story by name. But in a July 31 post, he did warn users to watch what they say: "Note: I take no responsibility of what happens from this post. I'm not the person wishing harm on this man. You guys can argue amongst yourselves but please don't make this page the cause of any actions after this posting. Some of you should probably watch what you type here."

Some Facebook users have made posts claiming to have seen Howard in Muscatine, even posting the vehicle description and license plate number of the car he was believed to have been seen in and the restaurants he visited. Howard's most recent registration on the Iowa sex offender registry has him listed as living in Clinton.

However, since the posters were not following Howard and he was in the public view, this behavior isn't legally considered stalking, harassment or defamation of character.

Orr said sex offenders are still allowed to spend the night in places other than their registered counties.

"I tell the offenders if they're going to be gone for three or four days, they should report it to me. The law is to report anything longer than five business days," said Orr. "It's best for the offender and for the community. That way everyone is on the same playing field. The crime [Howard] was found guilty of does not have living restrictions. He may have some employment restrictions and can't loiter outside the library or go to the public swimming pool. But he can live right next to any one of those."

As for what the public is allowed to do when it comes to sex offenders? They can remain vigilant and report suspicious activity to the police. They can keep a close watch on their own children and teach them to steer clear of strangers. They can keep tabs on where sex offenders live. But taking the law into their own hands puts them at risk of having the cuffs slapped on those hands.

"As the law reads, there has to be specific examples of harassing the person directly," said Jirak of people's actions toward Howard so far. "I may or may not like what happened to this individual, that's not for me to say, but he has rights now that he's out [of prison]. With those rights, doesn't he have protection from someone threatening his life? Nobody in this country has the legal right to threaten another person's life." ..Source.. by Sarah Tisinger

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