Tracking offenders proves difficult Registration laws seen as ineffective for communities

March 06, 1996|By Michael James and Marcia Myers | Michael James and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Joe Mathews and Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

Despite public outrage over sex offenders like Shawn E. Brown, authorities say it's difficult to protect communities from pedophiles moving in.

Maryland and roughly 12 other states have enacted laws requiring police to alert communities about sex offenders who target children, but the rights of convicts have undermined the ,, effectiveness of the legislation.

The issue came into the spotlight this week after Mr. Brown, an admitted pedophile with a history of attacks on children, was charged by Baltimore police with killing two city boys, ages 8 and 16. He had been released by New York prison authorities in June after serving nine years for nearly strangling a 10-year-old boy in 1986.

"You can't lock people up forever," said J. Kevin Mulroy, the Onondaga County, N.Y., judge who sentenced Mr. Brown to prison. "This is a dangerous man, but there's nothing in our rules to prevent this from happening.

"The Constitution doesn't allow people to be locked up forever," Judge Mulroy said in an interview in Syracuse yesterday. "We have to recognize that these people, as dangerous as they may be, can serve their time and go free." Mr. Brown served all of his nine-year sentence and left New York with no obligations to call or write to parole officials. When he arrived in Maryland, a new state law requiring that communities be notified when convicted sex offenders move in had not taken effect.

Maryland's sex offender registration law went into effect Oct. 1, about four months after Mr. Brown left prison and moved into Baltimore's Flag House Courts housing project. The law requires "sexually violent predators" -- people who are convicted of sexually abusing anyone under age 15 -- to register with the local police department.

Police officials then are required to notify the local school superintendent of the sex offender's name and address. The superintendent is required to share the information with area school principals, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a Maryland Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman.

Police also have the option of sending the information about the pedophile to community and religious organizations, as well as any other groups that oversee children, Mr. Sipes said.

Residents can ask their local police department in writing whether a neighbor is a registered sex offender. They have to provide a reason for seeking this information, such as the presence of a child in their home.

"The idea is that we want to put the community on notice that there is a child sex offender living in their neighborhoods and that a danger exists," Mr. Sipes said. "But in this particular case, Mr. Brown came to Maryland before the law started."

A bill pending in the General Assembly would expand that procedure to apply to sex offenders regardless of the ages of their victims.

At a low-key hearing in a Senate committee yesterday, Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat and the bill's sponsor, said the measure is necessary for the state to comply with the 1994 federal crime bill.

Last week, the bodies of Marvin Douglas Wise Jr., 8, and Obdul Richards, 16, were found in different locations. The killings occurred after the boys were abducted or lured to those spots, said city police, who are investigating whether Mr. Brown may be a suspect in other killings.

The family of Obdul Richards objected to the authorities' treatment of the case, saying that they believed the community should have been notified about Mr. Brown's violent history.

"He had 50 violations in prison," said Allen Richards, Obdul's father, referring to Mr. Brown's prison record. "He never should have been let out."

Mr. Brown was placed in Johns Hopkins Hospital's sex offender program when he was a teen-ager, but he escaped from a psychiatric unit and fled Baltimore in 1986. He rode a bus to Syracuse, where he lived briefly before being arrested for sex offenses.

Originally charged by Syracuse police with second-degree attempted murder, first-degree sex abuse and attempted sodomy in the near-choking death of the 10-year-old, Mr. Brown pleaded guilty to first-degree assault in 1988. His attorney called him a "schizophrenic pedophile" who wrestled with a split personality that told him to molest children.

Dr. Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist who founded Johns Hopkins' sexual disorders clinic, wouldn't comment on whether he ever treated Mr. Brown. But he said a common problem with treating pedophiles is determining when they are fit to return to society.

In some cases, Dr. Berlin said, pedophiles who serve their entire sentences are unfit to rejoin the outside world. Institutions are the likely answer in that case, he said, noting that licensed mental health professionals can commit dangerous sex offenders to a hospital in extreme circumstances.

"The point is there is a mechanism that can be used if the person is leaving prison and is still considered a danger," he said.

He said that he didn't agree with all state laws regarding public disclosure of pedophiles.

"I think it is quite important in selected cases for authorities to be informed so they can track them and even put them under surveillance," Dr. Berlin said. "But public notification troubles me. We have to worry about vigilantism."

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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