Law of the Land
Hundreds of Molesters Freed by Supreme Court
Decision Throws out Legislation Allowing Prosecution of Old Sex-Abuse Cases
June 28, 2003
Prosecutors, defense attorneys and the California attorney general's office were still scrambling today to figure out a response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that will free hundreds of confessed and convicted child molesters from prisons across the state.
Last Thursday, in a decision little noticed outside the Golden State, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that California had violated the Constitution's ban on ex post facto - after the fact - laws when the Legislature decided to change the time limit for bringing criminal charges in child sex-abuse cases and made the new limit retroactive to cover older cases.
As a result of the decision, a 55-year-old defrocked priest awaiting trial on charges of molesting four altar boys at the San Gabriel Mission in Los Angeles County - Lawrence Lovell - was one of the first released. He had been behind bars less than a week.
Hours later, Michael Wempe, a 63-year-old retired priest, whose bail had been set two weeks ago at $2 million after being charged with molesting five boys 20 years ago, was released.
Lovell and Wempe are among hundreds of people - some convicted, some confessed, some still awaiting trial -who will be released from jails and prisons across California or whose cases will be dropped as a result of Thursday's decision.
For many prosecutors, victims' advocates and police, the court's decision was hard to take.
The affected cases all involve not just allegations of abuse, but strong corroborating evidence, which was required under the 1994 law that the high court struck down.
In Santa Clara County, Assistant Dist. Atty. Chuck Willingham spent long hours after the ruling, calling victims to let them know the outcome. About 100 cases in his county will be affected.
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley has estimated that at least 200 cases in the county may be affected by the ruling. But determining which cases are still viable is a slow process, officials said.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, nullified a 1994 California law giving prosecutors authority to bring new charges in child molestation cases where the charge-filing deadline already expired. The law allowed such new charges if they were filed one year after an abuse victim reported the crime to police, no matter when the assault had occurred.
The law was aimed at cases where the victim had reached adulthood, and then reported an abuse to authorities.
The court's decision apparently ended the prosecutors' case against Marion Reynolds Stogner of Antioch, Calif., who was charged in 1998 with criminal sexual assaults on his two daughters, in one instance 43 years earlier, and another 31 years before. At the time those alleged incidents occurred, prosecutors had up to three years to bring charges, but failed to do so.
The two daughters in 1998 told police about the assaults during an investigation of accusations of child sexual abuse by Stogner's two sons. That led to the new prosecution of their father, then 70 years old.
Breyer's majority opinion said the law "authorized prosecution for criminal acts committed many years beforehand - and where the original limitations period has expired - as long as prosecution begins within a year of a victim's first complaint to the police."
He said such a law falls into the definition of ex post facto that can be traced back to a 1798 ruling by the Supreme Court.
Allowing an extension of a prosecution period, after an earlier one has expired, allows "legislatures to pick and choose when to act retroactively," Breyer said. That "risks both arbitrary and potentially vindictive legislation."
The majority opinion was supported by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter, and John Paul Stevens.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, said that "when a child molester commits his offense, he is well aware the harm will plague the victim for a lifetime."
Editor's note: The upcoming August issue of WND's acclaimed Whistleblower magazine will be on America's out-of-control judicial system, focusing in particular on the United States Supreme Court, whose recent rulings have validated reverse discrimination, opened the door for legalized polygamy, incest and bestiality, and freed hundreds of sex abusers. The current issue (July), titled "THE CONSTITUTION: America's ultimate battleground," explores whether the Constitution is still America's "supreme law of the land."
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