Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Two Off The List.

Its a mystery that may never have an answer. Stephen Marshall, a 20 year old from Nova Scotia living in the US, allegedly shot and killed Joseph L. Gray of Milo and William Elliot of Corinth, both towns in Maine. He took his own life later on Sunday when confronted on a bus by Maine transit police. There is as yet no clue as to what his motive was, but both his victims shared one thing. They were both listed on Maine's sex offender registry.

I've always been leery of such public registries. First and foremost I think they give people a false sense of security. There are people who will decide that since "one of them" isn't located in their community, at least according to the registry, that they don't have to be careful, when the reality is that such lists only indicate the convicted. Rather its best to always be a bit cautious regarding things like child abuse. Then there is the question of who gets on such lists. I've heard allegations of people getting on such lists for such things as drunkenly mooning someone. If true such people surely don't belong on the same list as paedophiles who have repeatedly abused children or serial rapists. Then we have this case, where someone used a publically accessable list to kill someone.

This kind of thing has happened before. Within the last several years a man in the UK was badly beaten when he was mistaken for a sex offender after a local paper published a picture of an actual offender he looked a bit alike. Much more frequently have been sex offenders who have been released from prison and have been subsequently harrassed after their presence in a community has been revealed by the authorities or citizens groups. Although I would not be happy about a serious sex offender living in my neighbourhood they have to live someplace once they are out of jail, and there's the chance some will go back to their old ways if they are subject to too much pressure.

The law must protect everyone in society, even those who break its laws. The obvious question the people of Maine will have to answer is whether the potential harm to sex offenders is worth the possibility of protecting children with a public list. The answer might seem at first blush to be yes, but it becomes less obvious when you learn that Elliot was on the list because he was convicted of having sex with his girlfriend in 2002 when he was 19 and she was 15. In other words statutory rape, a crime where the mooted victim often only is a victim because the law says he or she is despite being considered capable of informed consent in another jurisdiction. In any case there is no evidence Elliot was the same kind of danger to society as others on the same list. But now he's dead because he was on the list, and society likely isn't any safer.

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