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Protecting Children Always a Good Cause

Iverson case: A law that makes it illegal to fail to report a crime against a child is narrow enough to win support.

September 06, 1998|EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON | Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press, 1998). E-mail: ehutchi344

There is little disagreement about two things in the murder of 7-year-old Sherrice Iverson: 19-year-old Jeremy Strohmeyer admitted to police that he murdered Iverson in the women's restroom at the Primadonna casino near Las Vegas on May 25, 1997; his friend David Cash witnessed at least part of the assault on Iverson and did nothing to stop it.

After that it gets murky. When Strohmeyer's trial begins Tuesday, his attorney, Leslie Abramson, will argue that he confessed under duress, without an attorney present. As for Cash, the Clark County district attorney declined to prosecute him as an accessory to murder because there is no law in Nevada that punishes a witness for not reporting a crime.

The D.A.'s failure to act, plus Cash's remarks in which he expressed no remorse over the death of Iverson, touched off a firestorm of protest. There were angry marches and demonstrations aimed at getting him booted out of UC Berkeley, where he is a second-year student. But the fact remains that there are no legal grounds to expel him from school and no statute to prosecute him.

As a friend and advisor to Sherrice Iverson's mother, Yolanda Manuel, I could not accept that bitter reality. I decided to work to change the law in Nevada. This seemed much more promising than flailing away at Cash. Still, there was a huge problem. Many prosecutors, police, civil libertarians and much of the public strongly resist passing Good Samaritan laws. There's a good reason why.

Laws are supposed to punish people for doing something that endangers people, rather than for not doing something. Good Samaritan would criminalize someone who witnesses a crime and does not report it. The obvious danger is that these type of laws could force people to incriminate themselves, expose them to potential physical harm or force them to testify against family members. Only two states have bucked adverse public opinion and passed laws that require a witness to a crime to report it to police.

One way, however, to punish inaction such as Cash's, avoid the stigma of a Good Samaritan law and win public sympathy is to craft a criminal witness law as a child protective law. It must be tied to an act that arouses so much public outrage and revulsion that it ensures that it will get maximum political support. This was the case with the rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey. Megan's Law, which won overwhelming public favor, requires that police notify residents when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood.

The proposed "Sherrice Iverson Memorial Bill" could have the same public impact. It would make it a crime to witness a violent sexual assault against a child and not report it to authorities. It would not require anyone to physically intervene to stop such an attack, just report it. This is not an attempt to legislate morality but accountability.

This law would hardly be a radical remedy for witness indifference to sexual assaults against children. A 1980 California law requires health-care professionals and teachers to report signs of physical or sexual abuse to officials. While there may be some risk to an individual who witnesses criminal violence and reports it, this is more than offset by the greater social need to protect children.

Judging from the overwhelming public sympathy and support that Iverson's mother has gotten, I'm convinced that it's a law whose time has come. Nevada Assembly Majority Leader Richard Perkins and California Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) have agreed to back the Iverson bill in their state legislatures.

But this is not enough. The Iverson bill should be a federal law. Iverson's mother has requested a congressional sponsor for the proposed law. This would certainly be a decent and fitting way for lawmakers to show that they will do whatever is necessary to protect the Sherrice Iversons of America who cannot defend themselves from sexual predators.

The passage of such a law cannot erase the profound grief that Iverson's mother experienced because someone stood by and watched her child attacked and did nothing. But if it spares another parent that same grief, then it will be more than worth the effort to get it into law.

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