By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In 2005, Pataki directed the state to use existing mental-hygiene laws to commit 123 dangerous sex offenders after their release from prison. He announced that he wanted to "push the envelope" of the law to keep pedophiles and rapists off the streets. Although the public was on his side, the courts believed that he had pushed too far. An appeals court found that the practice violated the men's rights by confining them without any sort of judicial hearing. By 2007, most of those men had gone through court-ordered hearings and been freed.
Spitzer's Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act enacted a newer process of civil confinement that entails psychiatric exams, case reviews, probable-cause hearings, and trials. The new law paid more attention to due process, but the politicians who supported it spoke not of civil rights, but of victims. Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, who co-sponsored the law, says that civil commitment is a "draconian" measure that should only be used for the worst of sexual predators. He freely acknowledges that the law may place these people in a difficult position: "Those folks who have sexual proclivities have a hard time opening up to a psychiatrist in order to get the help they need, and that is a problem—but I dare say that is not the major problem. The point is, we have found a way to get sexual predators off the street."
And Lentol also acknowledges those who are ultimately committed may never be freed: "What judge is going to write the order to release someone knowing he is the worst of the worst, and knowing the kinds of crimes he committed to get in there?"
According to the Office of Sex Offender Management, which was created by legislative action last spring, 36 sex offenders were committed to psychiatric facilities during the first year of New York's new civil-confinement law. Another 139 were identified for "civil management"—either commitment to a psychiatric facility or long-term, intensive parole. Many of these men's cases are sealed, but documents obtained by the Voice provide a glimpse into the criminal histories of a few men identified as sexually violent predators with "mental abnormalities." They are:
Christopher James, 26, whose life was disastrous from the start. He was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, causing a lack of oxygen to his brain, and two genetic syndromes that cause eye-movement problems, small testicles, and reduced fertility. By seven months old, he was banging his head against things—the first sign of developmental delays. At four, he was kicked out of special-ed preschool for behavioral problems, and at nine, a cyst was found in his brain, which was drained but unable to be removed. All of these early problems, according to a state psychiatrist, contributed to what came next: an inability to control deviant sexual behavior. James was kicked out of his house and arrested for his first offense at age 19, after a seven-year-old girl accused him of touching her vagina. Out on probation, he was arrested a second time for fondling a 17-year-old girl while she was sleeping. That incident was caught on tape after the family he was living with put cameras up because they thought James was stealing from them. By 2005, he was behind bars and in trouble for violently raping a fellow inmate. He was going to be released in February, but has been civilly committed and will remain in a psychiatric facility indefinitely.
Stanley Dixon, an aging pedophile who racked up six sex-offense convictions from 1964 to 2002 in New York, North Carolina, and Connecticut. Dixon claims that he was sexually abused by his father and uncle as a child, and physically abused by his mother and foster family. After being arrested for sodomizing an eight-year-old boy in 1968, his first sex offense, he told police: "I didn't think I had a problem, but I did. I did it three more times." He molested and sodomized several boys ranging in age from eight to 15 over the years, serving a short sentence after each conviction. Then, in 1973, he pulled a gun on a 20-year-old woman and forced her to give him oral sex. In 1990, he was arrested after pulling a razor on a 26-year-old female acquaintance and sodomizing her for several hours. Only three months after his release for that crime, Dixon was arrested again for repeatedly molesting his girlfriend's 11-year-old daughter and her 12-year-old friend. He was supposed to be released last August, but has been detained in a psychiatric facility instead.
Shawn Short, a pedophile convicted of vaginally and anally raping a six-year-old girl in 1992. Short was also accused of molesting the girl's two-year-old brother, but never charged. After serving 10 years, Short was released on parole and was soon accused of victimizing children again. His parole was revoked eight months after his release, when he was accused of molesting his girlfriend's three-year-old son. Those charges were dropped, but a state psychiatric examiner petitioned to have Short put on "strict and intensive supervision"—basically lifetime parole with an ankle bracelet.
Freddie Johnson, who made headlines in April for his 53rd arrest, this time for rubbing against a young woman on the No. 6 train. Previously, the attorney general's office had tried to get the 49-year-old repeat sex offender committed to a psychiatric facility, but Judge William Wetzel ruled that Johnson should be released instead under "strict and intensive supervision" (lifetime parole with an ankle bracelet). That decision came back to bite Judge Wetzel just a couple weeks later, when Johnson was arrested after subway cops spotted him in the act. It was his 30th arrest for a sex crime.
As for the high cost of committing these men, Lentol doesn't think the public will mind. "I think that if society gets the benefit of being protected, of course it's worth it. I mean, how much is it worth to protect a child or a woman from a potential rapist? Is it $200,000? Is it $200 million? There are many families who would tell you the price is priceless."
In the law's first year, 36 men have been committed to mental institutions, while approximately another 140 are still going through the process to determine if they are, as the attorney general's office believes, violent sex predators with mental ailments. Most of the men would have come off parole or been released from prison this year.
Whether they have already been committed or are, like Parker, in legal limbo awaiting trial, the men are considered patients in the Office of Mental Health's sex-offender treatment program. The agency created the program in 2005 to treat an expected wave of rapists coming into its care, but so far, it has been of little use.
According to a program description provided to patients at the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, the only way to successfully complete treatment and be released is to acknowledge past sexual misdeeds and express a "willingness to discuss sexual offenses." But acknowledging criminal behavior could be used as evidence against patients to keep them locked up.
"They have to write an autobiography of offending history. If I was a person that had certain crimes that were not charged, I would not want to admit that," says David Tull, an attorney for some of the men being held in the Manhattan Psychiatric Center. The curriculum given to patients there reads: "This process involves honesty and self-disclosure about thoughts and past behavior that may prove to be difficult and embarrassing." Patients could not advance past the first phase of treatment unless they signed a form acknowledging their offenses. At the same time, the curriculum states that there are limits to the confidentiality of what goes on in the treatment.
"It demanded a lot of stuff that could possibly incriminate them a little later on," Tull says. "It's a real catch-22."
But only if the subject has something to divulge.
The New York State Association for the Treatment of Sex Offenders tried to warn state agencies that patients in the new program might refuse treatment. In a position paper, the association wrote that subjects "are not likely to volunteer information about other, as-of-yet undocumented offenses if that volunteered information is going to reduce their likelihood of release." It also wrote that treatment would not be very effective if the men were holding back. "There is no easy answer to this issue," the association said. At the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, the answer has been simply to ignore the problem.
When federal inspectors dropped by the center for a couple of days last fall, they discovered that none of the sex- offender patients had signed consent forms in the two years the ward had been open. According to a report from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare, one patient in the ward said that because he refused to sign the form admitting his crimes, he had simply repeated the first phase of the sex-offender treatment program four or five times without advancing. "Most of the program is more theoretical—not talk about incidents," the patient told inspectors, adding that most of the talk was about "definitions of paraphilias, cycles of sex offenders." Another patient diagnosed with pedophilia had been repeating phase one of the treatment for about a year. The inspectors concluded that these patients "had reached their maximum level of treatment" and were "being retained in the facility even though they were not receiving treatment based on their treatment needs."