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Is a harsh or belated punishment really justice?

SHARE Is a harsh or belated punishment really justice?

One case involves a 12-year-old boy. A separate case involves a 58-year-old man. These are troubling cases, for in quite different ways they challenge core values. Should the Supreme Court hear their appeals?

In Case No. 03-17, the boy is identified only as "J.W." We learn from the record that he was born in 1987. He lived with his parents in South Elgin, Ill. In November 1999 he was charged as a juvenile with criminal sexual assault — specifically, that he non-violently coerced two 7-year-old boys to engage in oral-genital contact. J.W. pleaded guilty.

A psychiatrist and a sexual therapist testified that J.W. was a danger to the community "to a certain degree." There was evidence that the boy had been influenced by looking at his father's sexually explicit magazines. The trial court put the boy on probation for five years and arranged for him to live with his aunt in nearby Elgin.

That was not the end of it. The court also ordered J.W. to register as a "sexual predator" under two state laws, the Sex Offender Registration Act and the Sex Offender Community Notification Law.

The Illinois laws on registration are among the toughest in the nation. Unless the Supreme Court overturns J.W.'s sentence, for the rest of his life he must advise the police of any changes in his address or employment. The law requires enforcement officials to notify schools and child care facilities of his presence wherever he lives. The Illinois Supreme Court asserted that the law "strictly limits the availability of information."

Chief Justice Maryann G. McMorrow, joined by Justice Charles E. Freeman, found the sentence legally correct but expressed concern "over the harshness of this lifetime reporting requirement." Justice Thomas L. Kilbride, dissenting, said the lifetime registration "offends principles of substantive due process."

The second pending case, No. 03-4, arose just 35 miles away, in the village of Justice, Ill. It is entirely different, but it presents the same questions: Is this sentence just? Assuming the sentence is lawful, is it — right?

The petitioner in the high court is William Smith. In April 1978, a Cook County jury found him guilty of burglary of a jewelry store. The trial court sentenced him to eight years in prison for burglary and three years (concurrently) for possession of burglary tools. He served for a little more than one year and then was released on bail while he appealed.

In March 1981 his conviction was affirmed. The trial court was properly notified, but a curious thing happened. Somehow the Smith case slipped through the procedural cracks. He remained free for the next 20 years.

In 1983 Smith took a job with the Justice Public Works Department. He still has the job. He lived under his own name in a rental apartment. For the past 11 years he has lived openly with his wife, son and mother-in-law in a mortgaged home on South 86th Street. He served for a time as a paid worker for Meals on Wheels, delivering food to sick and aged persons. When funding ran out, he continued services voluntarily to several seniors. For the past four years he has been a caregiver for a patient with Alzheimer's disease.

In November 2000 state authorities finally came to life and issued a warrant for Smith's arrest. He sought relief through habeas corpus, but the Appellate Court ruled that the 20-year oversight was not the state's fault. It was Smith's fault. He and his counsel knew his conviction and sentence had been affirmed. The appellate decree had been "spread of record" as of March 24, 1981. The remainder of the 1978 sentence must be served.

In a column some months ago I expressed support in principle for sexual registration laws. I would like to know if a convicted predator had moved next door to my grandchildren. But to subject a 12-year-old boy to the stigma of lifetime registration strikes me as cruel and unusual punishment. It is disingenuous of the Illinois court to assert that knowledge of J.W.'s conviction could be confined. Once a school had been notified, everyone would know.

As for Smith, the question must be asked: What possible useful purpose would be served by sending him back to prison? If the high court won't listen, perhaps the governor will.

In Jack Kilpatrick's column of Sept. 3, I relied upon an opinion by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz of the U.S. Fourth Circuit in the case of Kenneth Bernard Rouse. She wrote that a juror, Scott Baynard, might have been prejudiced because his mother had been murdered by a black man. Judge Motz erred. Baynard's mother had been murdered by a white man.

Letters to Mr. Kilpatrick should be sent in care of this newspaper, or by e-mail to kilpatjj@aol.com.