October 27, 2012

Another one bites the dust: Hollow SVP prosecution no match for jurors' common sense

15 minutes.

After a five-week trial, that's how long it took a jury in a rural Northern California county to decide that an openly gay man who had served two years in prison for a forcible oral copulation of an acquaintance back in 2003 did not merit civil commitment as a sexually violent predator.

The prosecution's case featured a lone government psychologist whose opinion rested on a hollow combination of homophobia, bogus psychiatric diagnoses and trumped-up risk estimates. The psychologist cited archaic (and discredited) Freudian theory to claim that the ex-offender's crime at age 23 was evidence of an "oral incorporation" fixation caused by a domineering mother and an absent biological father. As a legal basis for civil commitment, he cited the bogus disorder of "paraphilia not otherwise specified-nonconsent,” and he used the Static-99R actuarial tool to present a highly inflated estimate of risk.

Testifying for the defense were four psychologists, including two retained by the defense, a government evaluator who had changed her mind (or "flipped," in the current parlance) and the man's treating psychologist at Coalinga State Hospital, who testified in no uncertain terms that "Mr. Smith," as I will call him, is neither mentally disordered nor likely to reoffend.

The defense team had barely left the courthouse when the court clerk summoned them back, saying the jury had reached a verdict. Their astonishingly fast decision hints that the jurors agreed that this case was an egregious example of overzealous prosecution and a waste of their valuable time.

Prior to being screened for possible civil commitment, Mr. Smith had been on parole in the community for 14 months without getting into any trouble whatsoever. Indeed, he was busy doing good works. His sexually violent predator screening stemmed from an entirely accidental parole violation connected with his charity work for a local gay rights organization. He had a special parole condition forbidding any contact with children. When a fellow member of the executive board brought his child to an awards ceremony, Mr. Smith was exposed to "incidental contact as one might have while shopping at a market," in the words of the parole hearing officer. Unfortunately for Mr. Smith, this was just one month after California voters enacted Jessica's Law, which allows for civil commitment of sex offenders who have only one qualifying victim rather than the previous minimum of two.

The prosecutor's strategy, as is typical in weak cases, was to hurl as many prejudicial, pseudoscientific labels as possible in Mr. Smith's direction, and hope a few might stick and scare jurors into voting for civil commitment: Psychopath, antisocial, homosexual, paraphilic, high risk, etc.

While licensed as a psychologist, the government's expert had not done what clinical psychologists are trained to do: Psychological testing, individualized case formulation, etc. Rather, as he boldly admitted on the witness stand, he relied on an assistant to cull through Mr. Smith's hospital records and pull out negative behavioral reports for him to review. Wow! Can you spell B-I-A-S?

In my testimony, which stretched over the course of three days, I stressed that Mr. Smith was neither sexually deviant nor likely to reoffend. His risk of sexual reoffense, I testified, was no greater than that of any other garden-variety sex offender. (The base rate of sexual recidivism among convicted sex offenders in California -- similar to the rest of the United States -- hovers around 6 percent or less.) I explained how growing up gay in a homophobic family and community causes sexual identity confusion that can lead to sexual acting out and other delinquent behavior in adolescence and early adulthood, and how Mr. Smith had changed as he matured and accepted his sexuality. I further debunked the accuracy of the Static-99R "actuarial" risk estimates assigned in this case, and the pretextually applied diagnoses of "paraphilia not otherwise specified-nonconsent" (which I've blogged about repeatedly) and antisocial personality disorder, a red herring that was invoked despite Mr. Smith's exceptionally good conduct in the community and while in prison.

Stacking the deck

The prosecutor tried to stack the deck by striking from the jury all gay people or those who admitted having relatives or close friends who are gay; he also challenged those with advanced educational degrees. I guess he thought it would be easier to pull the wool over the eyes of an uneducated jury. It just goes to show that times have changed: Even in a rural county, antigay discrimination is no longer considered acceptable, and jurors don't need PhD's to recognize bias and pseudoscience when they hear it.  

The verdict was likely a bitter-sweet moment for Mr. Smith, who had spent more than four years incarcerated at Coalinga awaiting trial. Luckily, he has close friends to stay with while getting on his feet.

This is my third SVP case in a row that evaporated when finally exposed to the light of day. Like Mr. Smith's case, one of the other two also featured prominent antigay bias; the other targeted an immigrant. In neither case were the men either pedophiles or rapists.

I suppose I should feel pleased to see such gross miscarriages of justice thwarted. Instead, I find myself horrified by the unfettered power wielded by rogue psychologists, assigned to a case by luck of the draw. Whereas many government evaluators reserve "positive" findings for the rare sex offenders who are truly deviant and at high risk to reoffend, others are just hacks who are raking in obscene amounts of public funds while making little effort to truly understand these men, their motivations, their circumstances, or their pathways to desistance.

Especially frightening is the unconscious bias that creeps into SVP prosecutions. The constructs of "mental disorder" and "risk for reoffense" are malleable, lending themselves to use as pretextual weapons of prejudice wielded against gay men, racial minorities (especially African American men) and immigrants.

Clearly, people shouldn't get away with sexual misconduct. But none of these men had. All had pleaded guilty and served their time, only to be ambushed at the end of their prison terms with misguided efforts to indefinitely detain them based on purported future risk.

As it turned out, each case was about as solid as a house of cards. It didn't take gale-force winds like Hurricane Sandy's to flatten them.

Evaluators flipping like pancakes

The "flipping" of government evaluators illustrated this weak foundation. In two of the three cases, after reading the more thorough and individualized reports of the defense-retained experts, government psychologists abruptly changed their minds and decided that their previously proffered diagnoses of "paraphilia not otherwise-nonconsent" were invalid.

On the one hand, I applaud the openness and ethical backbone such a change of heart signals. But these "flips" also demonstrate the whimsical, nonscientific nature of the commitment process. The longer I work in these trenches, the more I realize that the random assignment of evaluators and attorneys (on both sides) exerts as much influence on the outcome as does the true level of future risk to the community that an ex-offender poses.

Indeed, the real reason Mr. Smith -- clearly not a sexual predator to anyone with a whit of commons sense -- was taken to trial, at a total cost to the citizenry of hundreds of thousands of dollars, was not because of his high risk, but because of a rigid prosecutor who was blind to the writing on the wall.

In contrast, the government dismissed the other two cases (one in the Midwest and one in the South) on the eve of trial. One case involved a gay man who had a brief sexual interlude with a teenage male relative; the other involved an immigrant who had gone on two dates with an underage teen girl he met on an online dating site (his misconduct never went beyond petting). Both had served substantial prison terms. But, again, garden-variety sex offenders, not the depraved, sex-crazed monsters likely envisioned by jurors when they are told they will be deciding a "sexually violent predator" case.

Bottom line: Should a random clinical psychologist, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year churning out boilerplate pseudoscientific garbage, be allowed to decide the fates of others?

At least in this one case, 12 discerning and conscientious jurors answered that question with a resounding "NO."

ON OTHER,TOTALLY UNRELATED NOTES: If you're looking for an intelligent movie in theaters now (always a challenging search), ARGO earns a qualified thumbs-up from me; my review is HERE. (If you find the review helpful, please click on "yes" at the bottom.) I've also just finished reading a thoroughly researched and well-written cultural biography of John Brown, Midnight Rising, that positions his raid on Harper's Ferry as a seminal moment in the lead-up to the Civil War. Tony Horwitz previously wrote Conservatives in the Attic, which -- as the descendant of Southerners -- I found spot-on.

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