BOSTON -- More than 120 "dangerous" sex offenders have been released under a 2008 Supreme Judicial Court ruling that keeps them from being locked up if at least two "qualified medical examiners" determine they’re no longer a threat, according to state data.
The state Department of Correction currently oversees about 130 sexually dangerous prisoners held under civil commitments. Most are housed at a medium security treatment center at the Bridgewater Correctional Complex.
From 2009 to Oct. 1, 2020, at least 123 individuals were released from the program because the state lacked "sufficient evidence" under the SJC's ruling to keep them locked up, according to state records.
Another 75 individuals were discharged after a jury determined that they were no longer sexually dangerous.
Details about the cases were not available, and it isn't clear from Department of Correction records if the individuals were set free or transferred to other facilities.
The SJC's 2008 ruling that called for their release involved convicted child rapist George Johnstone, of Fall River, who pleaded guilty in 1992 to two counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14.
Johnstone was sent to prison for 10 years. Afterward his sentence was complete, he was held under the state's civil commitment law, which allows for the jailing of sex offenders deemed to be a public danger, and required to undergo sex offender treatment.
Johnstone petitioned for release in 2003, and the case went to trial three years later.
Two medical examiners testified that Johnstone was no longer sexually dangerous. The high court rejected an argument by the state that he should be held anyway, saying it lacked the expert testimony needed to keep him locked up.
In doing so, the SJC set a precedent that the state must have testimony from at least one examiner saying someone is sexually dangerous in order to prompt a trial to determine if that person continues to be held.
The ruling has led to the release of dozens of sex offenders, according to Department of Correction records. One of the most infamous was Wayne Chapman, who was convicted of raping two boys in Lawrence in the 1970s and has admitted to raping more than more than 100 other boys.
Chapman spent years in a Massachusetts prison in Shirley under the state's civil commitment law. His path to the streets was cleared in 2018 when two psychiatrists hired by the Department of Correction determined he was no longer a threat, in part because of his age and declining health.
He was released in August 2019 as a Level 3 sex offender, which means he is considered among the most likely to re-offend.
Chapman has since moved to Connecticut, where he is staying at a state-funded home for ex-offenders, according to the Connecticut Sex Offender Registry.
Outrage over Chapman's release prompted legal challenges and proposals on Beacon Hill to toughen policies on sexual predators.
Gov. Charlie Baker, who sought to prevent Chapman's release, has pushed to strengthen laws on sexual predators and give the state more authority to keep offenders locked up, but the effort hasn't won much support from lawmakers.
Wendy Murphy, an attorney who has represented several of Chapman's victims, blamed Baker and lawmakers for not fixing the "broken" law.
"There's a lack of political will to do what everybody knows is needed to protect the public from these sexual predators," she said. "They need to do something about it before another Wayne Chapman walks free."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com