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Killings rekindle vigilante debate

By GREGORY D. KESICH, Portland Press Herald, April 19, 2006

The shooting deaths of two men listed on Maine's online sex offender registry have rekindled debate over the value of such information and the pitfalls that can accompany it.

William Elliott, 24, of Corinth and Joseph Gray, 58, of Milo had little in common, except that both of their names appeared on the state's Internet database of sex offenders. That was apparently enough to make them the targets of a gunman Easter Sunday morning.

Stephen Marshall, 20, of Nova Scotia researched 34 sex offenders listed on Maine's registry before shooting the two men at their homes and then killing himself that night as police attempted to apprehend him on a bus in Boston, police say.

Federal law mandates that states publish information about sex offenders in order to help families protect children from people who could pose a risk. Civil libertarians and other critics say such mandates are symbolic laws that waste resources and make offenders a target for harassment when they are trying to reintegrate into society.

"It's almost an invitation to vigilantism," said John LaFond, a retired professor from the University of Missouri Law School. 

"These laws are almost a confession by the state that we have done all that we can, you must now take the defense of your family into your own hands," 

said LaFond, whose book "Preventing Sexual Violence: How Society Should Cope With Sex Offenders" was published last year by the American Psychological Association.

Registered sex offenders have been attacked in several states in recent years. In Bellingham, Wash., police reviewed their Internet sex registry after a man used it to get two sex offenders' names and address, entered the home they shared posing as an FBI agent, and fatally shot them last year. After the review, police stopped listing exact addresses; they now list the block the offenders live on.

Raymond Roberts, a sex offender who is listed on the Maine registry and lives near Sunday's victims, said Tuesday it just as easily could have been him.

"It's really scary," said Roberts, who lives in central Maine but asked that his hometown not be identified. "I live alone. I live way out in the country and basically I could be here for days, a  dead body, shot." 

Sunday's deaths also were on the minds of sex offenders at a treatment session in Auburn, said Scott Efland, a social worker who works with sex offenders. 

"One man said, 'It's target practice and we're the target,' " Efland said. "They're very afraid." 

Efland said some offenders at Tuesday's treatment session were concerned that the state re-activated the online registry just a day after taking it down following the murders.

"I think there's a lot of anxiety on the decision to put the registry right back up in terms of a copycat type of thing," he said.

State police said they took down the registry while Marshall was at large for fear he may have been using it to track additional victims. Once he was no longer a threat, online access was restored.

Proponents of Megan's Law, the federal statute that requires all states to set up a sex-offender notification system, say the registries are not responsible for vigilante attacks. 

"We are vehemently opposed to these types of crimes; unfortunately, when these things happen, it gives fuel to people who are already against the release of this information," said Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents For Megan's Law, a New York-based watchdog group. 

Megan's Law is named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old Hamilton Township, N.J., girl who was raped and murdered by a two-time convicted sex offender in 1994. It requires all states to register sex offenders, but gives them discretion on what they do with the information.

Maine's Web site, she said, received a failing grade on the organization's 2006 report card for not providing enough information. In addition to the sex offender's name, address and photo, which can be obtained on the Maine site, the organization recommends states also publish information about the severity of the offender's crime, the age and gender of the victim and what method the offender used to gain access to the victim.

Ahearn also is critical of the state for not actively informing residents about the sex offenders in their town. 

"The spirit of Megan's Law is if a sexual predator moves next door to you, you should be notified," she said. "Well, not in Maine."

Portland criminal defense lawyer Neale Duffett said the Maine Web site makes offenders easy targets for abuse by publishing their street addresses. Duffett said that police could keep a list of addresses and provide them to the public on request. That would allow neighbors to know where the convicted sex offenders live in their town, but could prevent a vigilante from targeting people randomly.

"You ought to show some kind of need," Duffett said Tuesday. "If someone is calling from Houlton to reach two sex offenders in Corinth and Milo, that might have set off some red flags."

Duffett also says the state Web site does not distinguish between people who pose a high risk to commit repeat sex crimes and those who do not. Elliott was convicted of a misdemeanor sex assault after having sex with his girlfriend when she was 15 and he was 20, court records show. Gray was convicted of felony "rape of a child" in Massachusetts and was sent to prison for four to six years.

Even after the murders, there seemed to be no call to take down the registry as a precaution for other convicted offenders. 

"Nobody wants to see anybody cut any slack for pedophiles," said state Rep. Patricia Blanchette, D-Bangor, co-chair of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. 

At the same time, Blanchette thinks a panel created by the Legislature to study community safety and sex-offender accountability should be reconstituted to take up the issue and look specifically at whether some categories of offenses need to be listed.

Maine State Police continued Tuesday to investigate the killings but say they are no closer to understanding what led Marshall to behave the way he did. They know of no history of abuse in Marshall's life, nor whether he had any mental-health issues. Massachusetts authorities did not know why he traveled to that state but did not believe he had sought information on offenders from that state's registry. 

"We did interview his father. We have talked to his mother. At this point we've talked to some friends, those who knew him well, but there's not a lot of answers," said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for Maine's Department of Public Safety. 

Investigators, he said, hold out hope that Marshall's laptop computer, which they plan to retrieve from Massachusetts today, will contain answers. 

"With that generation, often there's a lot of documentation on a young person's life because they use their laptop for a number of purposes," McCausland said.

 [Articles & Essays - K]

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