Friday, November 13, 2009

People v. McRoberts (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 2, 2009)

You can have one of two reactions to this fact pattern, which involves someone being committed (after their period of incarceration has ended) as a sexually violent predator for an indeterminate period. Indeed, you can have -- as I do -- both.

Here's the scoop about Daniel McRoberts. Who's clearly got a (big) problem. I'm giving you his whole story so you'll get a clear and unadulterated sense of the guy:

"The defendant, born in August 1983, committed his first offense in May 1998. A girl whom the defendant knew encountered him in her bedroom. He had items of her clothing, including a bra, in his backpack. The juvenile court placed defendant on probation for burglary. Five months later, defendant walked up to a nine-year-old girl on a playground, made a sexual remark, and penetrated her vagina with his finger. This time, the juvenile court found he had committed a sexual battery and ordered unspecified treatment.

In May 1999, defendant walked up to a 14-year-old girl whom he found attractive and brushed against her buttocks and vaginal area, leading to another finding that he had committed sexual battery. In September 1999, defendant was riding his bicycle on the way to a treatment session when he saw a 13-year-old girl standing near a soda machine on school grounds. He approached her and told her she was pretty, and then reached inside her shirt to fondle her breast. When he tried to do it a second time, she kicked or pushed him away. Calling her a bitch, he rode off. This time, the court found he had committed child molestation and ordered his placement in the (then-named) California Youth Authority (CYA), where he participated in “pretty intensive treatment” for sex offenders until his release in 2004.

Two months after his release on parole, defendant was driving down the street and pulled up to a woman and her young child. As he purported to ask for directions, the woman noticed that he was masturbating. Making a vague threat about kidnapping the child, he drove off, still masturbating. He served a two-month jail term for indecent exposure. Ten days after his release from jail, defendant drove up to an 11-year-old girl who had just gotten off the school bus near her driveway. He got out of the car and offered her money for her underwear. When she retreated into her yard, he grabbed her hand. She either kicked him or fell backward, at which point defendant released her and drove off. He admitted his actions to his therapist, who contacted investigators. A jury found him guilty of attempted kidnapping and child molestation, and the court sentenced him to state prison for the term he was serving at the time of the filing of the present petition."

So here are my reactions.

On the one hand, again, McRoberts has a big problem. He's clearly -- and pardon me for using complex medical terminology here -- what we call "messed up in the head." Some sex-related wiring in his brain obviously isn't oriented appropriately, and that's causing big problems. As a result, he's not someone we want out on the street. And by "we," I mean to especially include people (like me) with small children. Will he reoffend? Yeah. I think so. His problem persists.

So that's my initial reaction. But the counterpart is: Yeah, he's messed up, but it looks to me like he's always going to be messed up. He's was burglarizing bras and digitally penetrating 9-year olds in playgrounds when he was 15, after all. Not to mention what he did when he was 16. If that's how you're spending your teenage years -- and we're only talking about the stuff he did that we know about, mind you -- there's something really, really messed up there. Something that we may well be unable to fix. So, sure, now that he's 26, he's probably still broken. But he's probably always going to be broken (or cross-wired, or whatever). Do we really say to the guy: "Welcome to Atescadero. You'll be here for the rest of your life. Enjoy."

This, of course, is the perennial problem with preventative detention. But it strikes me as especially applicable here. Here we have a young guy who's profoundly screwed up even as a youngster. If he's not fixed at 26, when exactly is he supposed to be fixed (if ever)?

I guess the cheap way out is to say that he's "fixed" when he's spent a certain number of years (or decades) saying "Oh, I'm sorry. I've learned. I have a problem. I'll never do it again." And by "a certain number of years" we basically mean "however many years until professionals say he probably both really means it and is mentally capable of actually meaning it." But I'm not at all confident that fundamentally adds anything. Because the science here -- at least for people like this -- just ain't that good. Much less that exact. It seems to me like we're just taking a guy and saying that we're going to keep him in until he's 50 or something and then hope that he's at that point "learned his lesson". Or that, having been institutionalized for 30 years, his brain is so messed up (albeit in different ways) as a result of permanent institutionalization that the wrong-way sexual wiring just doesn't much matter anymore.

So I don't know. On the one hand, I don't want this guy out. On the other hand, I'm not all that happy about keeping him in forever on the basis of either (1) the stuff he did in his teens, or (2) the way he was born/developed in adolescence.

But it seems that, if we're honest with ourselves, we may well have to do one or the other. And that just doesn't seem right. Either way.