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Molester Who Had Himself Castrated Must Remain in Custody

Ruling: Ventura County jury says that, despite his surgery, Stephen Norten still represents a danger to society.

July 09, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Ventura County jury on Monday turned down a plea for freedom from a convicted child molester who had himself surgically castrated in an effort to eliminate his sexual desire.

Jurors sided with prosecutors, who argued that the operation did not make Stephen Norten less dangerous. Norten, 41, has been convicted of seven sex offenses involving young boys and has been in and out of prisons and mental hospitals for more than 20 years.

The decision means that Norten must remain at Atascadero State Hospital. State law allows severe sex offenders to be held indefinitely if, every two years, prosecutors prove they still pose a threat.

Norten underwent his surgery in January after earlier receiving approval for it from a Ventura County judge. At Atascadero, he had submitted to "chemical castration"--injections of a medication that lowers testosterone levels--but the treatments were stopped after he suffered severe side effects.

Classified legally as a "sexually violent predator," Norten told therapists that he had hundreds of encounters with young boys. According to testimony, he told a psychologist at Atascadero that he used to frequent malls and video arcades.

At least three of his victims were from Simi Valley, where Norten lived in the early 1980s.

Troubled by his obsessive need for sexual contact with boys despite years of therapy, Norten saw castration as the only way he could safely live outside an institution, Chief Deputy Public Defender Neil Quinn told jurors. In his closing argument, Quinn said his client took to heart the adage: "If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out."

While disappointed in the jury's decision that Norten still is a sexually violent predator, Quinn said he believes the panel considered the complex case carefully.

"It's very hard to put this question to them in any way other than, 'Do you fear this person?' That answer is usually going to be yes," Quinn said.

Jurors spent a day deliberating after listening to conflicting expert testimony for two weeks. The six experts who took the stand were all psychiatrists or psychologists and were split down the middle on whether castration would end Norten's compulsion.

In the end, jurors agreed with prosecutor David Lehr, who contended that Norten's taste for stalking boys is ingrained and did not disappear when he was castrated. "His fondness for boys has lasted a lifetime," Lehr said. "It doesn't just go away with a few strokes of the surgeon's knife."

After the jury's verdict, Lehr said he believed the panel may have been swayed by testimony about the lax supervision Norten would receive if he were released. His plan was to live near his father in Arizona, where he would be placed on long-term probation.

Monitoring would consist of monthly check-ins with a probation officer. Medical tests to gauge Norten's sex drive and testosterone level could be administered, but only if Norten were to pay for them, Lehr said.

"What kind of supervision is that?" asked Lehr. "He could be out molesting 29 days a month and go see his probation officer on the 30th."

Superior Court Judge Donald D. Coleman ordered that Norten stay hospitalized until at least September 2003. At that time, prosecutors will again have to prove he presents a danger in order to keep him in custody. Norten has lost two previous bids for freedom; the hearing that just ended was delayed by his surgery.

*

Times staff writer Fred Alvarez contributed to this report.

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