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Legal Experts Say 1-Strike Law For Sex Offenders Already Exists


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— The deaths of 17-year-old Chelsea King and 14-year-old Amber Dubois have spawned a local movement to lobby for a law to lock up sexual predators for life. But legal experts say those laws are already on the books. The courts are not enforcing them.

Escondido mother Karen Doll-Murphy wants sexual predators put away for good after one conviction. She’s started a Facebook campaign that’s drawn more than 5,000 people.

“I think they’re furious and they’re very, very scared for their children.”

The fury and fear come from the details. Convicted sex offender John Gardner has been charged with murdering and raping Chelsea King. Her body was found in a shallow grave in Rancho Bernardo Community Park where she had gone for a run. Gardner is also a focus of an investigation into the death of Amber Dubois.

Doll-Murphy says the two murders have pushed people to their tipping point on how the legal system manages sex offenders.

“It has been proven time and time again that they get out and they re-offend and they re-offend. They get caught sometimes and sometimes they don’t. But if you go on Megan’s Law and you look and see who is in your neighborhood, you’re going to find offenders, not just one-strikers. You’re going to find many of them who have been caught two, three, four times and it’s not right.”

San Diego therapist David Peters says some sexual predators can be rehabilitiated, but not all.

“Some have more of a sociopathic personality. For those, they don’t feel guilt. They’re not going to feel guilt and they need to merely be controlled by society, the law, the legal system.”

And that is the category that experts say King’s murder suspect John Gardner fit in. In 2000, he pleaded guilty to committing a lewd act on a child. The victim was 13 at the time. According to court papers, the girl said Gardner tried to force himself on her sexually while he beat her repeatedly in the head. The girl told prosecutors Gardner put his hand on her mouth so she couldn’t breathe and she wasn’t sure if she blacked out. She managed to escape while half-clothed. Prosecutors say Gardner later showed no remorse.

Local criminal defense attorney Gerald Blank says Gardner’s crime 10 years ago qualified him under terms of a 1994 law that puts violent sex offenders away after one conviction -- the very law that the Escondido mom and other parents are clamoring for.

“He would have come under the one-strike law. He could have been put away for life in 2000 by the prosecution.”

But instead, Gardner’s prosecutor cut a plea deal and asked for six years. This even though the prosecution’s own filings say Gardner would re-offend if he was not imprisoned. Criminal defense lawyer Blank says that was a big mistake.

“The criminal justice system, in my opinion failed miserably here," said Blank. "The prosecution could have been put John Gardner away even under the plea bargain and he would not have been on our streets at the time Chelsea King was killed.”

Blank also blames the court which he says could have rejected terms of the plea bargain.

“A court has the right to say I’ve looked at this person I think he’s so dangerous, I decline to go along with the deal. I decline to sentence him to the number of years the two of you have agreed upon and therefore the defendant can withdraw his plea or he can let me sentence him. But I’m not sticking with this plea bargain period.”

Both the prosecutor David Hendren and Judge Peter Deddeh who presided over the 2000 case are subject to a gag order. Neither would comment for this story.

Blank says people need to be educated that one-strike laws for sex offenders already exist.

“When a horrible thing happens like the Chelsea King situation or the Amber Dubois situation, people rally and cry for stronger laws without first checking to see whether there is another flaw in the system and I believe there is a flaw in the system that can’t be covered by the law.”

And that flaw, Blank says, is not applying the laws that are already on the books properly.


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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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