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Ventura County

Bid to Free Molester Considered

Courts: Jury must decide if the man who had himself castrated still presents a danger.

July 06, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Ventura County jury on Friday grappled with the question of freedom for a convicted child molester who had himself castrated in an effort to quell his sexual obsession.

After a two-week hearing that blended dry scientific testimony with chilling images of a compulsive predator, the six men and six women began their deliberations in the late afternoon. The question they must answer is whether Stephen Norten's surgery in January is likely to end a lifetime of preying upon young boys for sex.

By Norten's account to therapists who testified, he has seduced more than 100 children since his teen years. Now 41 years old, he has been convicted of sex-related offenses seven times, five of them when he was in his early 20s.

Legally classified as a "sexually violent predator," Norten is fighting the state's bid to keep him in treatment at Atascadero State Hospital. State law allows repeat sexual offenders to be kept in custody indefinitely if prosecutors prove they remain a threat--a procedure they must undertake every two years.

Housed at Atascadero since 1997, Norten has spent most of his time since the early 1980s in treatment programs and prison. He underwent "chemical castration"--injection of a drug that curbs the sex drive--but stopped because of its damaging side effects.

In voluntarily submitting to removal of his testicles, Norten took "the ultimate step" toward rehabilitation, Chief Deputy Public Defender Neil Quinn told jurors on Friday.

"After castration, his impetus to re-offend is really gone," Quinn said.

Prosecutor David Lehr disagreed. Lehr cast the balding, bespectacled Norten as a skilled manipulator who, securing his freedom through surgery, would likely strike again.

"It's not just in his crotch," he argued. "It's in his mind."

Norten, who lived for a time in Simi Valley and committed a number of his crimes there, did not testify.

He failed in two previous attempts for release, but both bids were made before a Ventura County judge granted his request for castration.

During the hearing, jurors heard from six expert witnesses--three who believed castration would eliminate Norten's desire for young boys, and three who felt that the operation would not change his perverse behavior.

The experts, all psychiatrists or psychologists, cited European studies indicating a sharp reduction in repeat crimes among sexual offenders who had been castrated. At issue was whether Norten would be among that small percentage who defies the odds and chooses new victims to pursue.

Norten has asked for release to Arizona, where his father lives. If his request is granted, he would be under long-term probation there.

But no official monitoring would keep him from drifting into the loneliness that always preceded his hunt for young boys, Lehr said. Neighbors in Arizona would know his past and shun him, Lehr predicted, driving him to children or to "people with disabilities, people who can't fend for themselves, people he can manipulate."

Norten's attorney acknowledged there were no guarantees that his client would lead a blameless life if released.

Even so, castration is "the gold standard" of treatment for sex offenders, he said, citing testimony from his expert witnesses. To deny its effectiveness would be to negate "hundreds of years of human experience" showing how the procedure extinguishes men's sex drives, Quinn said. Studies have shown that castrated re-offenders are more likely to be rapists than pedophiles.

"[Rapists'] crimes are about domination and coercion more than sexual release," he said. "His offending is about sexual release."

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