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Q & A : The Trouble and Trials of Prosecuting Sex Crimes

May 29, 1994|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gary LaFree, chairman of the sociology department at the University of New Mexico, has spent a quarter century studying rape and is among the nation's leading authorities on the crime and its punishment.

In his 1989 book "Rape and Criminal Justice," LaFree described the twists and turns taken in the criminal justice system by 900 rapes in Marion County, Ind.; only 50 of them resulted in prison sentences. As part of his research, LaFree worked in the Indianapolis district attorney's office and observed more than 60 rape trials over two years. He has continued his research and expanded it nationwide for the second edition of the book, which is expected next year.

In rape cases where there is physical evidence or eyewitness testimony, trials usually boil down to whether the suspect can be positively identified. More difficult to prove are cases that focus on the issue of consent: Did the victim willingly engage in sex, and then change her mind?

These "consent cases," as they are called, force a judge or jury to choose between the victim and the accused and decide whom to believe. Societal stereotypes about rapists, circumstances surrounding the incident and the victim's personality often affect the outcome of such cases, LaFree said.

After reviewing news accounts of Edward Patrick Morgan Jr.'s criminal history and his alleged rape and murder of Leanora Annette Wong, LaFree talked with The Times.

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Question: What are your first impressions of this case?

Answer: From the victim's point of view, and from the residents of California's point of view, (this is) the worst-case scenario. The sense of outrage that the community feels, and certainly other victims must feel, is certainly palpable.

It sounded like this offender is in serious need of help.

This guy represents the worst scenario, a kind of predatory offender, with probably a very high likelihood of recidivism. He's relatively young, he's committed four serious violent offenses that we know about--and probably some we don't know about. The calculating aspect makes you real nervous about his future behavior as well.

This is the guy that the national "three strikes" legislation is aimed at, clearly, the guy that scarce prison resources are specially designed for.

There's no rehabilitation that's going to give people a very safe feeling about releasing this guy. The problem is that if you make a mistake in releasing someone like this, it's going to have very serious consequences.

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Q. Morgan has been convicted for rape three times in the past decade. While out on parole in 1993, he was arrested again for rape, but prosecutors chose to let him go back to prison for a parole violation rather than file new charges. Why would they do that?

A. Parole is a bit like a plea-bargain decision. If you get someone to cop a plea you're going to get immediate prison time. It's attractive to the system because it involves no resources--a court trial is a very costly enterprise.

Everyone in the system does their best to avoid trials. Nobody really benefits from a trial except, possibly, the victim.

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Q. Do you think the criminal justice system failed in this case?

A. It almost always fails. About the best (the system) can do is keep predatory, serious offenders like this off the streets until they get too old to do any mischief. It didn't in this case. That is a failure.

Prosecutors have a tough situation in the sense that they always have scarce resources. Do you use a large portion of those resources to do the right thing, even if there is a strong likelihood that you'll fail?

Basically it's a deal with the devil.

(In the 1993 Morgan case), the prosecutor was faced with a definite year in prison for a parole violation versus a possible acquittal. At trial you've got approximately a 50% chance of acquittal; in consent cases (like Morgan's) you've got even less of a chance. In a plea-bargain or in a parole violation, you've got a 100% chance that he's going to serve time.

I think (the system) failed. I understand the rationale of the prosecutor, but I think he made the wrong decision. I think the prosecutor was taking it from a strictly managerial point of view. You have to take on some cases--even though you may not win--because they're important.

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Q. Many rape victims refuse to testify, but in the 1993 case, the woman came forward. How important is the victim's testimony?

A. Nothing's going to happen without (the victim's testimony), because the victim is the key to the whole thing. Virtually every state in the country now has some form of rape shield law (that protects the identity of the victim). Cases are getting into court that did not get in before.

I think it was too bad (the 1993 victim) didn't get her day in court.

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Q. Can you explain some of the various rape charges?

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