First in a three part series on balancing civil rights and public safety.
Nine years ago a serial rapist by the name of Curtis Thompson was released from prison after serving a seventeen year sentence. With the aid of a defense expert, who testified that Thompson’s violent history was insufficient to label him a sexual sadist, Thompson was given unprecedented leniency. Bypassing the routine civil commitment and incarceration meted out to sexual predators, Thompson was released back into the community.
Of course, that’s where the story gets even worse.
Thompson moved back home to his mother’s house in Northgate and soon returned to his old habits. During a short span of time in 2004, Thompson raped four women. He poured bleach on one of them to hide his DNA evidence. He killed one of them with a screwdriver. This brutal chapter ended with his arrest and imprisonment. Again.
The more you read the details of this story, (reported in the Seattle Times) the harder it becomes to contain a sense of outrage. This deviant began his pillaging as a teenager, burglarizing and stealing from dozens of homes and sexually abusing his own family members. In his 20’s he combined these crimes by breaking into women’s homes, threatening them with knives and covering their faces with pillows while he raped them. This led to his initial arrest and imprisonment in 1985.
What the article failed to elaborate on was the lengthy and painstaking investigation, the exhaustive and costly trial and the appeals process to which Thompson had ready access. In short, locking up this monster was a burdensome task.
Our society places great value on personal liberties. As such, there are many obstacles set up in the criminal justice system that police and prosecutors must hurdle before a court can finally strip an individual’s freedom. And rightly so.
Despite all of these safeguards, Thompson’s case highlights a major flaw in the system. His monstrous actions and subsequent conviction should have been more than sufficient to provide a seamless transfer to our state’s civil commitment center for sexual predators. Instead, a court-appointed defense psychologist was allowed to provide evidence at a commitment hearing that Thompson was no longer a threat to the community at large.
And what were the defense psychologist’s facts? 1) Thompson had not committed a sex offense in seventeen years; 2) Thompson told the psychologist he was now a Jehovah’s Witness and was no longer interested in harming women; 3) Thompson’s actions, blindfolding, cutting and choking his rape victims, did not constitute “sexual sadism.”
One can imagine what the prosecutor’s rebuttal to these statements could be: Wasn’t it true that the defendant was actually incarcerated during those seventeen years?; So you would like us to release him because the defendant said he’s cured?; And what, for the love of God (strike that), constitutes sexual sadism in your definition?
Which brings us back to the flaw in the system: Human decency. According to the prosecution’s psychologist, Amy Phenix, “People tend to want to think other people are good or changed – that’s human nature.”
That is a plausible explanation for the jurors’ decision to release Thompson from any civil commitment in 2004. Pointing out the obvious error in this judgment, which ultimately freed this predator to rape and kill more victims, does suggest the disingenuous notion of hindsight.
My point of view is obviously entrenched in my role as a police officer. But this vantage has given me a deeper understanding of our courts, a system that chips away at the massive amount of credible evidence until only a small portion remains for jurors to view. When jurors overcome their lenient tendencies, it is a clear and resounding indication of the defendant’s guilt.
Jurors in Thompson’s civil commitment hearing were, hopefully, well versed in his past crimes. They would have realized that this individual made horrific choices, choices that in other world cultures would have meant his certain death. Making the decision to free this monster would not have been an easy decision. However, when faced with the chance to extend some mercy, to tap into our lenient human nature, Thompson’s jurors could not help but scratch this itch.
The more courageous act would have been to face the man, refuse his release and live with the knowledge that the tough decision was made to place the safety of the community above the liberty of a convicted serial rapist.
For the future, we have the words of Nanci Newhall, whose sister died at Thompson’s hand. “Walk a mile in my shoes…see if [you] feel the same. I’m all for fairness and liberty, but that doesn’t mean you let a psychopath out.”