Veronica Rodriguez of Hillsboro, Oregon recently completed a year in prison for the supposed crime of hugging a 13-year-old boy. With time off for good behavior, the 27-year-old completed the sentence imposed on her by the judge who presided over her criminal trial.
The prosecutors in that case, displaying a shameless vindictiveness that might have struck Shylock as excessive, appealed the sentence as impermissibly lenient under Oregon's draconian Measure 11 "one strike and you're out" sentencing guidelines. An appeals court agreed with the prosecutors and imposed an additional five years to Veronica's sentence. The case reached the Oregon state supreme court on February 13, and it may prompt a re-evaluation of the Beaver State's "one strike" sentencing law.
I am not being snarky in describing it as a "one strike" law: That's the way it is proudly advertised by law enforcement and prosecutors who have been granted a license thereby to impose lengthy prison terms on people as young as 15 years of age for behavior that could properly be called lewd and unacceptable, but can't rationally be called criminal. Under the law, first offenders face prison terms that must be considered disproportionate to the offenses they commit.
Among the possible applications of Measure 11 listed on a County prosecutor's website are the following:
You[,] alone or with a friend [,] want someone’s baseball cap. You either pretend to have a weapon or threaten to beat the owner up. You and your friend go to prison for 5 years and 10 months....
You and a friend get into a fight with another person. Your friend pokes the other person in the eye with the handle of a hairbrush, a stick, etc. The eye is injured. You and your friend go to prison for 5 years and 10 months....
You and a date are at a movie. You touch your date’s buttocks, crotch, or breast. Your date tells you to stop. You ignore this and touch your date there again. You go to prison for 6 years and 3 months....
You hear that someone is messing with your friend. You go to their house and force them outside to beat them up. You go to prison for 5 years and 10 months....
Robbery, assault, and sexual battery are all serious crimes, and should be punished as such. But Measure 11 -- particularly where alleged sex offenses are concerned -- seems to have been written for the purpose of criminalizing conduct best punished by a stout, privately administered face-slapping.
Certainly, 15-year-olds -- of any chronological age -- shouldn't persist in fondling unwilling girlfriends (or be permitted to beat up others with impunity, for that matter). But I can't see how it's right to send someone to prison for six years and leave him indelibly branded as "sex offender" for repeatedly copping a feel without explicit permission. And Veronica Rodriguez has been consigned to that fate for behavior much more innocuous than a furtive movie-house grope.
Veronica Rodriguez (center at bottom) with her boyfriend Kevin (left) and her parents.
(Willamette Week photo)
Assuming that the statement of facts in the appellate court's ruling is reliable, there's ample reason to suspect that Veronica Rodriguez was guilty of serious errors in judgment that might have led to less-than-criminal misbehavior with an under-age boy. That misbehavior should have resulted in her losing her job at the Hillsboro Boys & Girls Club, where she worked as a counselor.
The 13-year-old in question came from a broken home and was described as having trouble managing his anger (as most 13-year-old boys do, of course). Veronica, whose initial assignment at the Club was to be a "Prevention Coordinator" -- helping members avoid "doing things such as getting pregnant in high school [or] joining a gang," as she described the role -- took what appeared to be an unusual and unseemly personal interest in the youngster.
According to the summary presented by the Oregon Court of Appeals:
"Defendant and the victim [the Court's term for the 13-year-old] frequently hugged each other, and defendant sometimes put her arm around the victim when they walked, Defendant occasionally allowed the victim to sit on her lap in her office. He kissed her on the cheek between 10 and 20 times. She sent e-mail messages to him in which she said, `I love you' and `I love you lots'.... Defendant took the victim with her on several trips to Bend and Spokane, two of which were overnight trips. The two were frequently alone together in her car, at her apartment, and at his home. They were seen alone together in her office at the club with the door closed."
In addition, Veronica frequently visited the youngster's home and ate dinner with his family, and frequently gave him rides home from school. All of these unsupervised individual contacts, especially the overnight trips, violated the club's long-established rules. They also connoted a deeply improper relationship between Veronica (who at the time was 25 years old) and her 13-year-old friend.
So the proper course of action would have been for the club's faculty to sanction Veronica, and even fire her, if necessary. Absent direct evidence of sexual contact between the two of them, Veronica and her "boyfriend" (as gossip among the other students described the youngster) should have been pried apart using instruments other than the criminal law.
No direct evidence of such a relationship was ever found -- despite the fact that Veronica was convicted of first degree sexual assault and has served a year in prison for that offense.
The purported "sexual conduct" behind that charge took place in the club's game room, which was filled to near-capacity by several dozen students. The offense is described by the Court of Appeals thus:
"The victim, who had since turned 13, was sitting on a chair. Defendant, who had since turned 25, was standing behind him, caressing his face and pulling his head back; the back of his head was pressed against her breasts."
At this point you're probably asking yourself, "Self, could you explain how an attractive 25-year-old woman could be topless in a room full of adolescent boys without triggering a riot?" That's a good question, because it underscores a key distinction rational people would make, and that the prosecutors talked a jury into ignoring: The "victim"'s head was pressed against Veronica's shirt, not her breasts. Both Veronica and her "victim" were fully clothed.
This was the "sexual conduct" referred to by the prosecution, which makes me think they must never have gotten the little speech from their parents explaining "Where babies come from."
Oregon's laws, like those of most states, describe sexual contact as one intended to gratify the sensual appetite of one or both parties. It's not clear at all that the contact described above would qualify. Oh, sure: Given the state of perpetual hormonal carbonation in which many 13-year-old males exist, any contact with an attractive female could qualify, but that's hardly a sound standard.
There's little doubt that Veronica's conduct, as described by the courts, was ragingly improper. But the one overt act described here is not a crime. The jury deadlocked on a second count involving another alleged incident of a more overtly sexual nature.
So Veronica was convicted of sexual assault on the basis of one non-sexual act and a relationship shrouded in a dense fog of insinuation. To win a conviction, the prosecutors essentially convinced a jury to find the defendant guilty of inferred acts and imputed motives. In this way, an inappropriate hug became a felony
Michael Hintz, a former police detective who has worked for Veronica's defense team, describes her conviction as the most perverse miscarriage of justice he's seen in two decades of investigative work. The trial judge, Nancy Campbell, insisted on setting aside mandatory sentencing guidelines because she found the prescribed sentence sufficiently disproportionate to shock the conscience.
But because of Measure 11, and a corps of prosecutors incontinently eager to twist the knife as fiercely as they can, Veronica now faces another five years in prison for conduct that no sentient being can consider criminal.
As the Pharisees prepare to stone a woman to death for adultery, Jesus brings to their attention a fatal flaw with their version of Measure 11.
The fact that a jury was willing to buy the prosecution's case suggests that, in Washington County, Oregon, at least, jury pools are drawn primarily from those who take their bearings on reality from daytime television. And the willingness of the state judiciary to sentence Veronica to five additional years in prison underscores the political triumph of the chief promoter of Measure 11, a retread Republican "family values" politician named Kevin Mannix.
Until the political winds shifted a decade and a half ago, Mannix was a "McGovern Democrat." With the ascendancy of the Gingrich-era Republican Party, Mannix changed parties -- eventually becoming chairman of the Oregon GOP -- and began to give voice to previously unknown social conservative convictions.
Perhaps inspired by the exploits of the television gumshoe bearing the same surname, Mannix also embraced the "law and order" theme, which is always a good way for cynical politicians to consolidate tiny rivulets of social discontent into a torrent of politically useful alarm. In 1994 he sponsored Measure 11 as a way of tying the hands of judges regarded as too solicitous of the rights of criminals. The predictable result was a draconian system of mandatory sentencing and an invitation for career-minded prosecutors to pad their statistics by building cases against "felons" like Veronica Rodriguez.
Kevin Mannix, the moral conscience of Oregon and scourge of the criminal element, is radiant during a photo-op with a singularly impenitent criminal.
Mannix has served in both chambers of the state legislature. During three state-wide elections, offered himself as a gift to the voters of Oregon; each time the voters have politely said, "Thanks, but no thanks." In his losing campaign for Attorney General in 2000, and his equally unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 2002, Mannix benefited greatly from the financial support of Loren Parks, a Nevada resident described by some as the "Daddy Warbucks of Oregon conservative causes."
And here is where this particular story takes a turn from the tragic to the genuinely weird.
Loren Parks, unlike Veronica Rodriguez, is a certifiable pervert. He's the founder and owner of Parks Medical Electronics Inc., which manufactures a device called the "penile plethysmograph," which takes readings of the galvanic skin response of a male sexual organ while a test subject is bombarded with pornography; this is supposed to measure male sexual arousal.
That heinous device is frequently used in child abuse investigations: Men suspected of molesting children are subjected to an assault of visual pornography, including scenes involving children. Reactions determined to deviate from an arbitrary norm have been used as evidence in criminal trials, despite the device's dubious reliability.
What kind of a mind could have conceived of such a device? I won't presume to open a window into Loren Parks' soul; that's not necessary, given the exhibitionistic streak that led him to set up a website boasting of his putatively astonishing sexual prowess. Another useful public admission came in 1986, when he settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of a mildly retarded woman whom he had sexually exploited -- an act not noticeably distinct, in a moral sense, from child molestation.
Parks is also dealing with a lawsuit filed by a former employee named Maria Guerin, who accuses him of barraging her with pornographic e-mails and pressuring her into a sexual relationship. To parry that accusation, Parks produced a document called a "Contract to have a sexual relationship" that Guerin allegedly signed before a 2001 trip abroad. The document says, inter alia, "We will be sleeping together on the trip for our mutual pleasure.... Neither of us is obligated to continue an intimate relationship following the trip. All of this has been discussed with my supervisor...."
Guerin contends that the document is spurious and that Parks inserted into her personnel file after the fact. I'm inclined to think that it would be more alarming -- and more compelling as evidence against Parks -- if the document were genuine.
Parks was a major financial backer of Measure 11 in 1994. Somehow it just figures that an individual as extravagantly perverted as he would be the chief financial supporter of that law that may steal six years out of the life of an undisciplined young woman who has been labeled a sex offender on the basis of an intrinsically harmless act.
(Thanks to Anthony Gregory at Strike The Root for bringing Veronica's story to my attention.)
My new book, Liberty in Eclipse, is on sale now.
Dum spiro, pugno!