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Megan's Law Not Enough to Save Girl, 11

Death renews debate over effectiveness of regulations to track sex offenders.

September 17, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WILLIMANTIC, Conn. — Carrying candles and flowers, and playing a recording of Angelica Padilla's favorite hymn--"Walking the Streets of Gold"--neighbors of the 11-year-old girl staged a vigil the other night to mark the passage of a month since she was brutally slain while delivering newspapers.

The gathering was small, perhaps 150 people, but was filled with the chord of outrage and anxiety that has swept this factory town since the girl's body was found--"virtually decapitated," as the state attorney put it--not far from the housing project where she lived with her mother. A convicted sex offender, Jose A. Torres, 26, has been charged with the killing.

The case has generated new debate about the implementation and effectiveness of so-called Megan's Laws, requiring people convicted of sexual crimes who are freed from prison to register with law enforcement officials. The laws vary widely and are evolving as courts and legislatures hew and refine them.

Torres, who has pleaded not guilty to killing Angelica, was listed on Connecticut's registry of sexual offenders. But Angelica's family and friends are incensed, because he called himself Jose Soto, and his name was registered as Jose Torres Cancel. Also, they say he was listed under his mother's address, not the sprawling complex where he and the victim lived.

Millie Mercado, the child's mother, fumed that the list was not distributed to families living near the suspect. Instead, it was kept at police headquarters.

"I'm a single mother and I work full time," said Mercado. "I can't stop by between 8 and 4 and say, 'Oh, by the way, did another sexual offender get released today, and is he maybe living in my neighborhood?' "

Her opinion was shared by Richard J. Kanka, whose 7-year-old daughter, Megan, was raped and strangled in 1994 by a paroled child molester in New Jersey. Within months, her state passed the country's first law establishing a mechanism for informing the public about the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders.

In a letter to the Hartford Courant soon after Torres was arrested, Kanka wrote: "If law enforcement continues to find excuses not to implement the law properly, the next victim could be the child of a police officer or any child who dares play or walk alone on any street in America."

Authorities say Angelica was not sexually molested, but her mother wailed loudly in court last week as State's Atty. Mark Solak called the crime sexually motivated.

Procedures for identifying convicted sexual offenders differ so significantly from state to state that it is difficult to draw broad conclusions from the Padilla case, said Ronald K. Chen, a specialist on these laws at Rutgers University School of Law in New Jersey. Some sexual offenders pose little risk of new offenses, Chen said, "as opposed to those who are predatory."

As a result, Chen said, information that is available to the public "is only good in the sense that it conveys accurate information about the risk of re-offense. Throwing all the names into one list, and saying, 'If you want to find them, go down to the police station,' that's not helpful."

Susan Powers, assistant head deputy of the Los Angeles County district attorney's sex crimes division, said that in California, some form of reporting law has been in existence since 1944. The primary change brought about by the Megan's Law movement, Powers said, is that "now some of the people, not all of the people, can be disclosed to the public under certain circumstances."

In California, candidates for public disclosure are presented on a CD-ROM prepared by the state Department of Justice in Sacramento. It is available through local police departments; in rare situations, neighbors may be notified.

Even before Angelica's death, some changes were set to take place in Connecticut's sex offender registration law. Beginning in October, the types of crimes that require registration will be expanded to include kidnapping for sexual purposes, public indecency and fourth-degree sexual assault. By Jan. 1, the entire list will be posted on the Internet.

Mercado, for her part, wants still more. "I want the list to be accessible any time of the day," she said. "I want it in the town hall, and in the library. I want a picture of the offender, along with a description of what he did. And I want those people to be checked on a monthly basis to be sure they live where they say they live."

New York attorney Geoffrey S. Berman, who represents the Kanka family, said the danger of even the most stringent sexual-offender notification law is that parents may be lulled into a false sense of security. Berman added that another potential downside is that "there may be people who really don't pose any kind of risk, whose history will be known throughout the community."

Still, Berman said, "universally, these laws have touched a chord--and that's a good thing."

Mercado acknowledged that even tougher laws might not have saved her daughter's life.

"Maybe it is something that couldn't have been prevented," Mercado said. That remark prompted her friend, Patty McGuirk to take Mercado's hand.

"God forbid it should happen to another kid," McGuirk said.

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