Chelsea King's Case Raises Doubts About Megan's Law
The suspect in the death of Poway teenager Chelsea King is due in a San Diego courtroom this afternoon. John Gardner is in police custody on suspicion of murder and rape in the King case. Gardner is a registered sex offender. King's death has left some parents frustrated over whether Megan's Law is really working.
Maggie Koyamatsu of Poway lives one block away from her children's school. She says Chelsea King's murder has made her think twice about letting her kids walk home alone.
"Cause you just don't know who's visiting your neighbor. I think the message I took you know is there's sex offender laws and they don't do any good."
One of those laws is Megan's Law. It requires sex offenders to register with authorities when they're released from prison. They must also alert police if they move.
But legal experts say the case of John Gardner -- the suspect in King's murder - is "exhibit A" in the limitations of Megan's Law. The Megan's Law website lists Gardner as living in Lake Elsinore in Riverside County. But he has also spent time at his parents' home in Rancho Bernardo, near the park where King was found dead. And Gardner registered as a sex offender at an Escondido address in November of last year.
"The registered sex offenders -- even though they have an address in one city, they're free to move from city to city as anybody else is," said San Diego Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long. "So the sex offender who may be in your neighborhood may not be in your neighborhood, they may be in somebody else's neighborhood. And those people just don't know that."
And that is a reality, says former San Diego District Attorney Paul Pfingst.
"Whatever precautions are taken to protect a community from sexual predators, they can never be fool proof unless we do not have a free society. In a dictatorial, totalitarian state we can tell people who have done their sentence and are back in the community what they can and cannot do. In a democratic society if you're not accused, and not under a sentence and not under the jurisdiction of a court, you are free to travel in the United States."
Local criminal defense Attorney Bob Grimes says the erratic nature of human behavior will also render even the most well-crafted law imperfect.
"A lot of these crimes we just can't predict them. There are 60,000 registered sex offenders in California and probably a relatively small proportion of them are going to commit a crime of a really serious violent nature. But we can't predict which ones or how they're going to occur. So Megan's Law is really limited from protecting us from this kind of thing.
Still, few aside from civil libertarians are ready to scrap Megan's Law. Assistant Police Chief Long say the public identification of sex offenders and the ability to share that information is crucial in monitoring the felons.
"Instead of law enforcement being solely responsible for this person's conduct or watching this person. We ask the community to help by having all eyes on that person to hopefully prevent them from committing another crime."
Former DA Pfingst says there's also a powerful psychological benefit to Megan's Law.
"The biggest impact of Megan's Law is to tell sexual predators and make them somewhat paranoid about the fact that if they walk down the street or in the community that people are watching them. If they show up at a park that people will talk about them. That I think has driven down crime."
Pfingst says he shares people's anguish over Chelsea King's death and their disappointment with laws designed to deter sex crimes.
"This case represents the frustration not only of Megan's Law and sexual predators. What it represents is the fact that a 17-year-old beautiful young woman was taken from us unfairly and we're angry about it and we have a right to be angry about it."
Pfingst says no law can stop 100 percent of criminals 100 percent of the time.