The Problem With Sex Offender Registries
He was accused of an unspeakable crime he did not commit. For 27 years Earnest Leap of Oakview, Missouri has lived with the ugly label, “child molester.” With his name on a publicly available sex registry the word quickly spread that he had sexually abused his own son and had “admitted” it in court.
The facts of Leap’s case make it clear it could happen to anyone in the midst of a contentious child custody case.
In the fall of 1989, following an antagonistic divorce, a judge ruled that Earnest and Karen Leap would share custody of their sons, 5-year-old Brodie and toddler Josh. Primary custody was awarded to Earnest and the boys would live most of the time with their father.
Within months of that ruling Brodie – now 32 – remembers his mother “incessantly” cajoling him to say his father had sexually abused him. Brodie, motivated by a terrible guilt, has spent much of his adult life trying to undo the damage.
Hauled into court to face child abuse allegations Earnest took the flawed advice of his public defender and accepted a deal to plead “no contest” to the charge. The deal included no jail time, a guarantee that his record would disappear in three years – and most important to Earnest – it would spare his son from having to testify at a difficult trial. Back then there was no such thing as a sex registry.
Then in 1994, a federal law required every state to establish a public registry listing every person convicted of a sex crime. In Missouri, Earnest Leap was forced to register as a sex offender and remain on the registry for the rest of his life. His world began to fall apart, his movements limited by the rule that an offender may not be in proximity to or live near minors. Imagine going through life having to dodge schools, malls, parks, theaters, even ice cream stores.
For decades both Brodie and brother Josh have campaigned to clear their father’s name calling him, “the most positive force” in their lives.
Finally, their efforts paid off. Earlier this month, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon issued a full and complete pardon for Leap. On August 19th Earnest got the call and heard the news he must have longed for. Complete exoneration. Pardoned for the crime he never committed.
“I’m still overwhelmed,” Leap, 57, told the Kansas City Star after the call. “I am just really, really thankful.”
The governor wrote that chief among the reasons he granted the pardon was the fact that Brodie Leap had never wavered from his insistence that he had lied all those years ago at the urging of his mother. (Contacted recently Karen Leap Harris continued to maintain the molestation occurred saying, “It happened … My son would not have lied to me back then,” she said. “I don’t know why Brodie is lying now.”) Sadly, neither adult son has a relationship with his mother.
I’ve written in this space before about the senseless way in which these sex registries are maintained. They should focus on tracking career pedophiles and those who produce and trade in the worst kinds of child pornography. Instead, state registries are overflowing with the names of those convicted of drunkenly urinating in public or those involved in so-called Romeo and Juliet sexual contact. Just because the parents of a 16-year-old girl want her just-turned-18-year-old boyfriend punished doesn’t mean the state should participate in ruining a young man’s life.
The trend does seem to be shifting ever so slowly. Last year, the California Supreme Court declared sex-offender living restrictions were unconstitutional. In New York, the Court of Appeals struck down an ordinance that banned sex offenders from living near schools. And the high court in Massachusetts, did the same. A judge there compared living restrictions placed on one group of citizens to some of the country’s darkest history – the construct of reservations for native Americans and internment camps for Japanese Americans.
As the Leap’s marriage was dissolving in the late 80’s President Reagan’s Labor Secretary, Ray Donovan, was found not guilty of corruption charges and he famously asked, “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?
As Earnest Leap knows it’s mighty hard to undo 27 years of public perception. Where does he go now for relief from the nearly three decades of undeserved punishment?