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Trial to Open in Case That Inspired 'Megan's Law'

Courts: Mother whose daughter was killed campaigned for measure that requires neighbors be informed when a convicted child molester moves in.

May 05, 1997|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — It was a journey away from a nightmare. Moments earlier, the couple had identified the body of a girl found in a park as that of their 7-year-old daughter. She had been kidnapped, raped and strangled.

On the ride back home, as their car approached an abandoned gas station at the intersection of five roads, the family of Megan Kanka noticed a man soliciting signatures on a petition.

They stopped and discovered he had two children, and he shared their outrage at the crime. The petition called for several things--including notification when a convicted child molester moves into a neighborhood.

Little did they realize during that sorrowful moment in the summer of 1994 that they were at the start of an odyssey that would take them through the Oval Office and bring about fundamental legal changes throughout the nation.

"Never in my wildest dreams, I thought I would be an activist," said Maureen Kanka, Megan's mother, who campaigned tirelessly for what has become known throughout the United States as "Megan's Law," which requires that neighbors be informed when convicted sex offenders move in. "I was at home for 12 years raising my children."

Today, the final chapter begins. Jesse K. Timmendequas, a 35-year-old, twice-convicted sex offender, is scheduled to go on trial in Trenton, N.J., accused of luring Megan to her death with the promise of seeing a puppy. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

Jury selection has been difficult in the high-profile case. Questionnaires were sent to about 4,000 potential jurors. Because of extensive pretrial publicity, the jury was picked in Flemington, N.J., 20 milesfrom Trenton. Jurors will commute by bus to the courthouse each morning.

Prosecutors allege that Timmendequas confessed to Megan's slaying, and Judge Andrew J. Smithson has ruled those statements to be admissible as trial evidence.

The defendant was convicted twice for prior sexual misconduct, the first case involving a 1981 attack on a 5-year-old he lured into the woods. He received probation in that case.

A year later, Timmendequas was found guilty of attempted sexual assault on a 7-year-old, whom he choked into unconsciousness. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for that attack. His sentence was reduced, and he was released in 1988.

Timmendequas then moved into a house directly across the street from the Kankas' home in Hamilton Township, N.J. Living with him were two former inmates who also had been convicted of sex crimes against children. They had met at a facility for compulsive sex offenders.

A hint of the defense strategy emerged during jury selection. A lawyer for Timmendequas asked prospective jurors if they would be willing to consider claims that he was sexually abused as a mitigating factor.

Since her daughter's slaying, Maureen Kanka has made dozens of speeches in at least eight states about the dangers of child molestation. Basically a private person, she still gets nervous every time she faces an audience.

"I request a podium. I need to hold on to something," she said in an interview.

"On the one hand, you have children who are very naive and very trusting, and they trust adults around them. They have parents that want their children to be children and not realize what the world is like outside their frontdoors," she said.

"In today's society, we have to be honest and forward with our kids. . . . We have children taken out of their yards. Kids can't trust everybody outside the frontdoor. Through a child's eyes, the profile is an ogre. That is a misconception. They [pedophiles] look like Mom or Dad, not an ogre. In some instances, they are Mom and Dad.

". . . It can happen to any of our children. Nobody is exempt from all this, and they all should learn from what happened to our family. . . . "

Her message struck a national chord.

On May 17, President Clinton signed a federal law requiring states to pass legislation including community notification when a convicted sex offender moves into a neighborhood.

"He [President Clinton] spent a good deal of time with my son, showing him a collection of different types of things, medals and buttons and different things," she said. "The president took his Megan ribbon off and added it to his collection. He said it will always stay there."

All 50 states now require violent sexual predators and people convicted of related crimes against minors to register with law enforcement authorities where they live.

Many of these statutes are being challenged in courts. Critics argue that the laws may drive child molesters underground, raise constitutional issues of due-process protection and deprive former convicts of their civil rights after they have been punished.

"One has to question any laws that are passed overwhelmingly by virtually every state with barely a dissenting voice in a very short time after this horrible crime," said Vivian Berger, a professor at Columbia University Law School.

". . . Without in any way denigrating from the horror of the crime, we can't say yet how the laws are working. This has been challenged in the courts. The serious constitutional issue is whether the notification components can be applied retroactively."

Proponents argue that the Megan laws will turn out to be important crime-fighting tools.

"It is the most important issue we will ever face in the country: our kids," said Kanka, who with her husband, Richard, has two other children.

She won't comment about the trial until it is over. Some spring evenings she finds solace by sitting in Megan's Place, a park that was built after the house where her daughter was attacked was torn down.

"The daffodils have come up, some tulips," she said. ". . . A lot of parents bring their children over. It's beautiful."

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