Should Calif. Change Sex Predator Laws?
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March 5, 2010 – San Diego remains shaken by the rape and murder of Poway teenager Chelsea King. We discuss the details of the case, and how it could impact California's sex offender laws in the future.
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GLORIA PENNER (Host): San Diego remains shaken by the rape and murder of Poway teenager Chelsea King. At his arraignment on Wednesday, John Albert Gardner III was accused of the killing and pleaded not guilty. He is a registered sex offender. After the arraignment, San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis had this to say. BONNIE DUMANIS (San Diego District Attorney): We know this has rocked San Diego. It has rocked all of us. And, as we move forward, we need to move forward and wrap our arms around this family. And, begin the process of bringing this defendant through the justice system, and holding him accountable for the death of Chelsea. PENNER: KPBS reporter Amita Sharma is covering the story and joins me now to give some detail. So, Amita, what are the specific charges that John Albert Gardner III is facing? AMITA SHARMA (KPBS News): John Gardner is charged with murder as well as the special allegation of murder while committing or attempting to commit rape. It’s that last allegation that gives prosecutors the option of pursuing the death penalty against him. They can also ask for life without parole if he is tried and convicted. There are some deliberations that need to take place within the DA’s office before a decision is made. Chelsea King’s family will be consulted. An informal, unscientific poll of local lawyers regarding this case, they say this is a slam-dunk death penalty case. PENNER: Slam-dunk death penalty. So what was the mood like in the courtroom during the arraignment? SHARMA: Heavy, very quiet. The sadness, the grief of Chelsea King’s family, of this community was palpable inside that courtroom. The proceedings themselves went by very quickly. John Gardner’s public defender pleaded not guilty on his behalf. The only word that John Gardner uttered was the word “yes” when the judge asked him if he understood the upcoming court dates. Outside the courthouse there was anger. There were people protesting. There were people carrying signs basically asking for no leniency for molesters, no parole for molesters. PENNER: So the emotion level is high. And he’s the only suspect in the case at this point, right? SHARMA: That is true. PENNER: How did the police identify him as the suspect? SHARMA: John Gardner is a registered sex offender. His DNA – his semen – was found on an article of clothing of Chelsea King’s according to investigators. PENNER: So you said he’s a registered sex offender, and of course that’s been much in the news. What was he previously convicted of? SHARMA: Ten years ago, John Gardner pleaded guilty to committing a lewd act upon a child, in this case a thirteen-year-old girl, and false imprisonment. Those two offenses carry a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. He served five years of a six-year sentence. A psychiatrist who evaluated him at the time said that he should serve the maximum sentence because he had not taken responsibility for the crime, and that he would be a danger to underage girls in the community. However, another psychiatrist who was treating him for bipolar disorder said that he had shown remorse. PENNER: Alright. Now, he is being investigated in the disappearance of Amber Dubois. What are some of the limitations that we’ve learned about regarding Megan’s Law, which does exist, that we’ve learned about as a result of this case? SHARMA: Well Megan’s Law in effect creates a public registry of sex offenders. It requires these offenders to notify police when they’re released from prison and to alert them if they're going to move. In the case of John Gardner, on the Megan’s Law Web site he is listed as living in Lake Elsinore. In November of last year he was listed as living in Escondido. His mother, whom he visited, lives in Rancho Bernardo near the Rancho Bernardo community park where Chelsea’s body was found. So the limitation is this: we’re supposed to know where these sex offenders are living, but they are allowed to move freely and we don’t know where they are at any given time. Now, in California, there are about seven thousand sex offenders who have these GPS anklets on them. But not all of them send signals, and even those that do aren’t being scrutinized properly. So there are some defects here. PENNER: Finally, Amita, we spoke to parents who live in the area. One of our reporters did. What did they say? SHARMA: They are angry. They are frustrated. They feel like Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law – which prevents sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or a park – are worthless. They are not protecting people’s children from crimes like this. PENNER: Well thank you very much, Amita Sharma. SHARMA: Thank you.