TOPICS > Politics

A Debt Repaid?

June 2, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Rod Minott of KTCS-Seattle has the sex offenders story.

ROD MINOTT: Joseph Aqui raped more than a dozen women and served his full twenty-year prison sentence. In 1992, the 44-year-old serial rapist was about to be released, but, instead, he was locked up as a mental patient at the Special Commitment Center, or SCC. It’s a facility designed to treat Washington State’s most dangerous sex offenders: rapists, pedophiles, and child molesters.

JOSEPH AQUI, Convicted Rapist: I think it’s understandable that people consider us monsters. I think the things that we have done are monstrous, but there’s a difference between a human being and the act. You know, it comes down to that. I feel great pain for the victims I have created, the hurt and the turmoil I have caused their lives, but what about my wife and my children? I mean, they have been victims of a sense too by not having been able to be fulfilled with the promise of me coming home when I was paroled.

ROD MINOTT: Under a landmark law passed in 1990 violent sexual predators can be civilly committed for psychological treatment after they’ve already completed prison sentences for their crimes. Washington was the first of seven states to adopt a statute aimed at chronic sex criminals. Proving they suffer from a mental disorder is key to locking them away for up to life.

SARAH SAPPINGTON, Asst. State Attorney General: He’s still a dangerous sex offender.

ROD MINOTT: Sarah Sappington is an assistant state attorney general.

SARAH SAPPINGTON: The Supreme Court is the body that created this rule that in order to civilly commit someone you have to be mentally ill and dangerous. And if the legislature defines a mental condition that can be understood by experts in the field in such a way that a narrow group of people are defined and affected by that law, it’s our view that these people are appropriate for civil commitment and that they are mentally ill under the law.

ROD MINOTT: Critics like attorney Bob Borouchowitz insist the law is unconstitutional.

BOB BOROUCHOWITZ, Public Defender: The problem with this law is they’re not mentally ill, and they’re not get treatment. The purpose of the law and the effect of the law are punishment that punishes people twice for the same crime. It punishes them more harshly than the law provided when they committed the crime in the first place, and it keeps them locked up when they’re not eligible to be locked up. They’ve completed their sentence, and they’re not mentally ill.

JUDGE LARRY JORDAN, Superior Court: Now I realize that Mr. Aqui, for all public purposes, is a criminal.

ROD MINOTT: Joseph Aqui’s bid to win freedom triggered a bitter fight in this Seattle courtroom.

JUDGE LARRY JORDAN: Making a decision to release Mr. Aqui is not an easy decision.

ROD MINOTT: Late last year a superior court judge decided the serial rapist could be safely released into the community. With that, Aqui became the first man ever to win release from the SCC after completing a five-year course of therapy for sexual deviancy. Even so, Judge Larry Jordan said he felt the convicted rapist posed a danger, but he ruled prosecutors had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Aqui would likely commit another offense if released under strict conditions.

JUDGE LARRY JORDAN: I feel that my decision and the conditions of this particular conditional release plan are consistent with the laws and the Constitution and are appropriate and will safely protect the community.

ROD MINOTT: The 37 conditions of release for Aqui included wearing a 24-hour electronic monitor, being supervised by an adult whenever he goes out, and continuing sex therapy.

JUDGE LARRY JORDAN: And are you willing to comply with the treatment provider and all requirements imposed by the treatment provider and by the court.


JUDGE LARRY JORDAN: All conditions contained in this document?


ROD MINOTT: After the court’s ruling, defense attorney Chris Jackson called on residents of Aqui’s hometown to put aside their fears.

CHRIS JACKSON, Aqui’s Lawyer: We, of course, urge the community of College Place in Walla Walla to accept his return. We understand their frustration and their fears about him coming home. We hope that this will be an amicable situation.

ROD MINOTT: College Place residents were anything but amicable about the release.

OFFICER SMITH: I’m Officer Smith of the College Place police department. We’re handing out some flyers in reference to the release of Mr. Joseph Aqui. Are you aware of that?

ROD MINOTT: Police distributed flyers warning neighbors of the serial rapist. At a public hearing many angry residents said they feared for their safety.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: How do you expect this man away from colleges when the whole College Place is a college? There are women who are walking around late at night, going to their dorm rooms. I’m sorry, but that scares me to death.

OLDER WOMAN: And, you know, if any one of us should happen to shoot him if he comes near us, are we going to be prosecuted, and he’s going to be supported?

MAN: And whether you ladies like it or not, you’re going to have to change your living habits. I’m having a devil of a time with my wife. She prefers to put it out of her mind. I’ve got to convince her. Ladies, pair up.

ROD MINOTT: Aqui’s case has renewed sharp debate over whether repeat sex offenders can be cured through treatment. Dennis Lepiane, the police chief of College Place, opposed Aqui’s return.

DENNIS LEPIANE, Chief of Police, College Place: If he’s successful, I can convince the judge to reduce or modify or do away with some of these conditions as time goes on. That’s when I really have some concern about the whole situation.

ROD MINOTT: Lepiane insists serial sex felons can never be rehabilitated.

DENNIS LEPIANE: I don’t believe that serial rapists should be back into society under any circumstances, any serial sex offender, whether it’s a serial rapist or a serial child molester, it wouldn’t matter; I don’t think that they should be back.

ROD MINOTT: Why is that?

DENNIS LEPIANE: Because of propensity for reoffending, and there’s a lot of documentation out today that a large number of these people will reoffend at some time in the future if the opportunity presents itself. And I’m not willing to risk future victims because a serial sex offender says he’s now a changed human being.

STEPHEN RUBIN, Aqui’s Psychologist: I think it’s somewhere like 35 or 40 percent nationally that sex offenders recommit the crime.

ROD MINOTT: Aqui’s psychologist, Stephen Rubin, said he thinks his patient has changed and will succeed.

STEPHEN RUBIN: He lives in my community with my wife and my daughter. I’m partly responsible for him being back in this community. If I wasn’t confident, I would not have allowed that. I would not have permitted it. I’m very confident, especially if the supporting people surround him continue to support him, including his wife, including his church.

ROD MINOTT: Rubin has dealt with sex offenders for 20 years, but he admits he has never treated a violent sexual predator before, a class of sex criminal that is considered more aggressive and dangerous. Even so, he said he still believes under special circumstances some like Aqui can be successfully rehabilitated.

STEPHEN RUBIN: I think we can treat some violent predators, yes. I think we need to be very cautious about treating all violent predators in the community because I think there are certain characteristics of this individual which are favorable towards treatment which may not be true of other individuals. Partly is his age; partly is the situation in the community; partly is the support he has.

ROD MINOTT: Psychological research doesn’t yet provide a clear measure for the effectiveness of treatment either. Roxanne Lieb is a researcher who has study sex felons.

ROXANNE LIEB, Institute for Public Policy: For serious offenders with a long history there isn’t, as far as I’m aware, any research demonstrating a particular technique that can be used. For sex offenders as a whole there are–there have been some studies which have showed some promise, particularly with–as I mentioned–incest offenders–you can get good results. So it’s not something, in my estimation, to give up on. On the other hand, it’s not something–it would be foolish to suggest that everyone should be treated and that should be all that needs to be done, and we should forget about any kind of prison terms.

ROD MINOTT: Despite the lack of data on treatment, Lieb still thinks Washington’s sex crime laws have been beneficial.

ROXANNE LIEB: We’ve done a study of community notification, looked at the comparison of recidivism rates between a similar group of offender subject to notification and those that weren’t and found that their recidivism rates were actually quite comparable but what the difference was, was that the people who were subject to notification were rearrested twice as quickly.

ROD MINOTT: Lucy Berliner, an expert on sexual assault, says civil commitment may be the best way of finding out if chronic sex criminals can be successfully treated at all.

LUCY BERLINER, Harborview Sexual Assault Center: We would have an opportunity to test whether or not there is such a thing as an effective treatment if the civil commitment statute were found constitutional because, in effect, these guys would be faced with a reality that unless they show people that they are less dangerous, unless they actively engage in the treatment process, they are not going to get out.

ROD MINOTT: The law allows for conditional release only after completing therapy. Even so, most of the special commitment center’s 45 residents still refuse treatment. One resister is Richard Turay, a three-time convicted rapist.

RICHARD TURAY, Convicted Rapist: I’m litigating this law. I’m fighting it through the courts and challenging it, and I have no desire to participate in anything here. And I won’t.

ROD MINOTT: Are you a sexual predator?


ROD MINOTT: Why don’t you think you’re–why don’t you consider yourself a sexual predator?

RICHARD TURAY: Because I don’t. I’m not. Hey, I’ve had a couple of incidents in my life. You know, that’s in my past. Seventeen years ago, nineteen years ago–I don’t owe anybody any explanation for my past.

ROD MINOTT: Washington State residents may have no choice but to live with even more sex offenders like Turay as their neighbors. A federal district judge recently ruled Washington’s sex predator law unconstitutional. That decision is on appeal. Meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing a Kansas statute modeled on Washington State’s. A negative ruling in either case is likely to set free Washington State’s 45 sexual predators with virtually no limits on their movements. Sarah Sappington of the state attorney general’s office.

SARAH SAPPINGTON: All of these people have been found to present a risk to public safety, so, yes, there is going to be a greater risk to public safety if these people are released. On the other hand, the law enforcement is aware of this problem. They will be tracking each of these individuals as much as they possibly can. They will all be required to register, and so law enforcement will do all that is humanly possible to minimize the risk to the public.

ROD MINOTT: Police Chief Lepiane worries minimizing that risk may be impossible.

DENNIS LEPIANE: We’re going to have to monitor them as closely as we can without any help from the courts. And we certainly aren’t going to be able to post a man at their residence or in the vicinity of their residence 24 hours a day, so it’s kind of a hit and miss proposition, quite frankly, and all bets are off.

ROD MINOTT: Meanwhile, Joseph Aqui said he is well aware that he has the potential for relapsing into his old behavior and of raping again.

JOSEPH AQUI: I think that’s a valid fear that I have. And I think what I do with that is I let that motivate me more and more to do everything I can to prevent that from happening. And that’s the way I’ve approached my achievement here–not just to get out but to stay out.

ROD MINOTT: Only a handful of the 45 sex felons at the SCC are seeking therapy as a possible way out. The majority, like Richard Turay, continue to hope that freedom will soon come from the courts, rather than a treatment program.