Out of prison, but still not free: Putative sex criminal Veronica Rodriguez, who served a year behind bars for hugging a 13-year-old boy.
In the 1984 HBO movie "Sakharov," the eponymous Soviet physicist and human rights campaigner is seen addressing a small gathering of human rights activists outside what appears to a courtroom.
With a sense of grateful accomplishment, Sakharov announces that the death sentences originally imposed on three Russian dissidents had been reduced to twenty years in a labor camp. This news is greeted with enthusiastic cheers.
When I first watched the film a quarter-century ago this struck me as a bitter "victory": The activists had done nothing that reasonable people would consider a crime, and thus had no business being in prison -- yet the "good" news was that they would spent the next twenty years, or conceivably the balance of their lives, at hard labor in some frozen concentration camp.
I wondered what it would be like to live in a society in which such a resounding injustice would be seen as a triumph of clemency. I wonder no longer, thanks to a recent Oregon State Supreme Court ruling dealing with the cases of Veronica Rodriguez and Daryl Buck, two innocent people who served time in prison and will likely spend the rest of their lives as registered sex offenders.
Veronica Rodriguez and Daryl Buck were both residents of Oregon when they were convicted of first-degree sexual assault on a child younger than 14 years of age. Neither case involved coercion, seduction, or nudity. In fact, neither case involved actual skin-to-skin contact of any kind, or behavior that could be reasonably construed as lascivious.
Miss Rodriguez, at the age of 25, supposedly "assaulted" a 13-year-old boy by hugging him in such a way that the back of his head came into contact with her shirt. Most news accounts of the case mislead the public by saying that she had pressed the boy's head to her "breasts," as if she had not been wearing a shirt.
Mr. Buck purportedly "assaulted" a 13-year-old girl during a fishing trip. The back of his hand came into contact with the seat of her pants when she cast a fishing line; the incidental contact occurred because Buck didn't move his hand. Shortly thereafter, Buck compounded that alleged offense by brushing some dirt from her pants.
The Rodriguez trial was heard by a jury that convicted her of criminal hugging while deadlocking on a more serious charge involving allegations of more overtly sexual behavior. Buck waived a jury trial but was found guilty by a judge. In each case, the trial judge set aside the mandatory minimum sentence -- 75 months in prison -- choosing instead to inflict a sentence of sixteen months (less time off for good behavior), in addition to a life sentence as registered sex offenders.
Here we behold the righteous works done by the progenitors of the folks who brought you Oregon's Measure 11.
These acts of relative leniency -- to the extent sending people to prison for non-criminal behavior can ever be considered "lenient" -- infuriated the prosecutors who won the conviction.
Displaying a vindictive tenacity that might have struck Ahab as just a bit much, they appealed the sentences, insisting that under Proposition 11, a ballot measure enacted in 1994, trial judges had no discretionary power to waive the mandatory minimum, and that Rodriguez and Buck had to serve six years and three months in prison.
The Oregon State Supreme Court, by a 4-3 margin, ruled that the comparatively lenient sentences were appropriate -- while also upholding the convictions for sexual assault. So while Rodriguez and Buck are spared a descent into one of the lower realms described by Dante, they are to remain confined in one of the upper circles of hell for the rest of their lives.
In 2005, Miss Rodriguez, whose case I have written about before, was a youth counselor at a the Boys and Girls Club in Hillsboro, Oregon. She and her family became quite close to a very troubled 13-year-old boy. Some people at the club -- both staffers and members -- became concerned that the young adult woman was taking too personal an interest in the young boy. On several occasions Rodriguez reportedly spent time with the boy alone, and took him on overnight trips to visit family and friends.
By any reasonable measure, Rodriguez's conduct was inappropriate and should have led to administrative action -- including, if necessary, termination. It would also have been a good idea for her father to take her aside and give her some pointed advice. But the first action taken by the club to intervene occurred after the hugging incident, which took place in a room occupied by scores of other people (hardly the ideal setting for a sexual predator to work his or her wiles on a helpless victim).
Two staffers at the club, a husband and wife, played the role of spitzel* by running to the local police and accusing Rodriquez of "assaulting" the boy, swaddling their accusation in a tissue of speculative innuendo. At the time, the administration of the Hillsboro Police Department was resentful over the club's decision to "downsize" the department's presence therein; it's difficult to see how this could not have influenced the investigation.
In an amicus brief filed during Rodriguez's appeal, the Boys & Girls Club of Portland complained that it is improper to permit a jury to infer sexual intent from non-sexual conduct. As paraphrased by the Oregon State Supreme Court, that brief argued that "permitting such inferences subjects those who work with children to the constant threat that an unhappy coworker may report them for sex abuse -- as apparently happened [to Rodriguez] -- leading to a criminal investigation and possible trial and conviction."
In its majority ruling the Oregon High Court observes that the contacts between Rodriguez and her alleged victim "were brief, if not momentary. There is no evidence of force or threats of any kind. The `sexual' or `intimate' body parts that were touched were clothed. There was no skin-to-skin contact ... no bodily injury or physical harm."
What this means, of course, is that there was no "sexual" contact, let alone "assault" of any variety -- and that therefore no crime had been committed. Yet the Court, for purely positivist reasons, insists that the contact in question was "unlawful" because a prosecutor described them as such and gulled a jury into ratifying that demented description.
Daryl Buck's case is quite similar. Once he was accused of "unlawful touching," several people suddenly remembered that he had said "inappropriate" things to the 13-year-old and her older sister. Like Rodriguez, Buck had no previous criminal record at the time he was accused of assaulting the girl.
If he had previously done or said things that gave the impression that he was a sexual predator, Buck shouldn't have been allowed anywhere near the girls in the first place. In any case, his reported conduct was not criminal in se; it was only construed as such when wrapped in vague but insistent allegations of other non-criminal behavior.
In its ruling, the Oregon Supreme Court notes that under the Measure 11-mandated sentencing guidelines, "Rodriguez and Buck would have received the same sentences if they had engaged in sexual intercourse with the children that they briefly touched." (Emphasis in original.) In addition to being deliriously disproportionate, this actually creates a perverse incentive for actual perverts; after all, if they would face the same punishment for a "bad touch" that they would receive for assault rape, why shouldn't they simply indulge themselves?
It's doubtful that the Oregon voters intended Measure 11 to dictate 75-month prison terms for people guilty of nothing more serious than a suspect hug or dusting off a youngster's jeans. The sentiment propelling that referendum was outrage inspired by the perception that judges were abetting violent crime by handing down criminally trivial sentences.
The referendum was chiefly the work of Kevin Mannix, a one-time McGovern Democrat who by 1994 had reconfigured himself as a Newt Gingrich Republican. The money behind Mannix was provided by former Oregon businessman Loren Parks, who moved to Henderson, Nevada a number of years ago but remains deeply involved in Oregon state politics.
C'mon, ladies, face it -- someday you're gonna have to deal with all this: Self-described sexual virtuoso Loren Parks, the money behind Oregon's Measure 11 and much of its conservative movement.
Parks became a multi-millionaire on the strength of his medical technology company, which manufactures various devices for measuring blood pressure and other vital functions. Its most notorious product is a device called a "Penile Plethysmograph," which supposedly measures sexual arousal by registering the degree of blood engorgement in the sex organ. That device is frequently used on accused sex offenders, often -- as Parks observes -- in the context of electro-aversion treatment.
Sexual deviance is a field in which Parks has some personal expertise. A number of years ago he was compelled to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of a woman who was described as mildly retarded -- a child in mind, if not in chronological age. He settled the suit while admitting that he had been sexually involved with the handicapped woman.
More recently, Parks was sued for sexual harassment by Maria Guerin, a former employee to whom he had sent e-mails containing various kinds of pornography, including images of bestiality. One typically sedate and decorous message demanded that the employee, a native of Spain, wear a bra that could be unhooked from the front, since their "relationship" was dependent on his "acceso a tus tetas" -- having access to her breasts. Prior to a trip abroad, Parks used his leverage as an employer to compel the woman to sign a document described as a "contract to have sex."
Although he's a bald, nebbishy man in his early 80s, Parks claims to possess superhuman sexual prowess. He also claims the ability to cure various kinds of behavioral problems through hypnosis, which he practices as a self-styled "lay therapist."
Although he has given nearly $11 million to conservative causes in Oregon, Parks -- a humanist who disparages belief in God -- is also a supporter of Planned Parenthood and a defender of Oregon's right-to-die policy. But he had a special affinity for the Measure 11 campaign; his commitment to that cause was reportedly born out of resentment toward judges and lawyers as a result of the lawsuits filed against him.
Mannix, who hoped in vain to ride the anti-crime wave into the Oregon Governor's Mansion, frets that the state supreme court's decision regarding Rodriquez and Buck will lead to a gusher of litigation by defense attorneys challenging the draconian mandatory minimums. If the treatment inflicted on Rodriguez and Buck is typical of the "justice" delivered via Measure 11, Mannix's prediction might come true -- and this would be a much-needed correction.
It would also be a welcome career boost for Mannix, who appears to be a canny opportunist -- one of many --- looking for ways to coopt that portion of the electorate that is susceptible to the appeal of punitive populism. Someone cynical enough to take an aging sex deviant as a partner in a puritanical anti-crime crusade has just the right combination of gifts to exploit the state supreme court's decision.
While Mannix plots his political strategy, Veronica Rodriguez and Daryl Buck, will continue their unjustified internal exile as registered sex offenders. But hey, what typical political career hasn't been built on at least a couple of ruined lives?
*"Spitzel" was the term used in East Germany to describe an informant.
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Dum spiro, pugno!