Baker to refile bill on sexual predators

Wayne Chapman

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker will ask lawmakers once again to limit the release of sexual predators from prison.

The move follows last week's ruling by the state's highest court clearing the way for the eventual release of Wayne Chapman.

Convicted of raping two Lawrence boys in 1975, Chapman is also a suspect in the 1976 disappearance of Angelo Puglisi Jr., 10, of Lawrence. He has admitted to raping as many as 100 boys in eight states and Canada.

Chapman, 71, has been in prison for more than 40 years, most recently under the state's civil commitment law, but the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled last week that he should be released immediately because two psychologists found he is no longer a threat to public safety.

In its decision, the court rejected arguments from the Baker administration and a lawyer representing several of Chapman's victims that the system of evaluating sexual predators who are locked up indefinitely under the state's civil commitment law is itself a threat to public safety.

Baker spokesman Brendan Moss said Monday the governor will refile a bill that would set a mandatory life sentence for rape of a child with force by someone already convicted of sexual offenses, and overhaul the process for determining if a sexually dangerous person should be released.

Baker, a Republican, filed similar legislation last year amid news of Chapman's pending release, but lawmakers didn't take it up before the end of the session.

Moss said Baker "remains committed to working with the Legislature to strengthen Massachusetts law and keep dangerous criminals out of our communities."

Wendy Murphy, who represents Chapman's victims, had asked the Supreme Judicial Court to block his release and improve the process for evaluating the threat posed by sexual offenders. She called last week's ruling "outlandish and unconscionable" and said the court's reluctance to require additional layers of review for sex offenders endangers public safety.

"These examiners have no accountability to the public," she said. "They're private contractors who aren't subject to any kind of oversight or judicial review."

Murphy, a former prosecutor, said the Legislature needs to fix the law by approving Baker's legislation or hammer out a similar proposal that expands state oversight of the process.

Such a move is likely to face pushback from the state public defender's office, which opposed Baker's previous bill as "rank fear mongering" that is "unnecessary, unconstitutional and costly."

The state Department of Correction contracts with a Virginia-based company to oversee 150 sexually dangerous persons held under civil commitments. Most are housed at a medium security treatment center at the Bridgewater. Others are held in various state facilities elsewhere.

A 2009 Supreme Judicial Court ruling bars the state from keeping sex offenders in prison if at least two "qualified examiners" determine they’re no longer a threat.

In Chapman’s case, two qualified examiners said he was too old and sick to reoffend -- a decision that paved the way for his release, despite opposition from a five-member board that reviewed his case.

Chapman's lawyer, Eric Tennen, has argued that the frail offender suffers from a host of ailments and is no longer a threat to the public. He told the SJC during a hearing in January that the process for reviewing the release of sex offenders is working as intended.

The court's 2009 decision involved George Johnstone, a Fall River man who'd pleaded guilty 17 years earlier to indecent assault and battery on a child. Johnstone served a 10-year sentence but was then held under a law allowing the state to keep custody of sex offenders deemed likely to reoffend.

Examiners with backgrounds in dealing with sex offenders testified that he was no longer dangerous, allowing for his release.

The Supreme Judicial Court rejected efforts to keep him in custody anyway, setting a precedent that requires the testimony of at least one such examiner that someone is sexually dangerous to prompt a trial on whether they should stay incarcerated.

More than 100 sex offenders have since been released under the Johnstone ruling, according to a review of state data. In most if not all cases, the Department of Correction and a five-member Community Access Board that reviews cases of sex offenders who are civilly committed disagreed with the conclusions of one or more examiners, according to state reports. But because of the Supreme Judicial Court ruling, the state has been powerless to stop their release.

In Chapman's case, he is still being held in MCI-Shirley, awaiting trial on new charges that he masturbated in front of prison staff. His trial is scheduled for June.

Murphy said the fact that Chapman reoffended even after two medical examiners cleared him for release shows the review process is "dangerously flawed."

"He couldn't even wait to get out prison before reoffending," she said. "If that isn't proof that the system is broken, I don't know what is."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

 

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