by Kevin Taylor
There was an Alice in Wonderland moment in Olympia earlier this month when a bill that would have rooted out pedophiles and other sex offenders at virtually no cost to taxpayers died a quiet death before even coming to a vote.
Senate Bill 6881 died in committee at the same time the capital was filled with white-hot bluster about getting tough on sex offenders no matter what the cost — "Hang them!" was one chant at a Republican-sponsored statehouse rally.
In Olympia, as across much of the nation, this anger has been spawned by the disheveled and bearded jailhouse visage of Joseph Edward Duncan III, who faces the death penalty in Idaho on accusations that he killed three people with a hammer last May in order to abduct and rape two children during weeks of torment in a remote national forest campsite.
All were strangers to Duncan, chosen at random, police say.
This sort of crime — heinous and horrid and the details of which can shake people to the core — represents roughly 3 percent of all sex offenders.
"Ninety-seven percent of child molesters have a relationship with the victim," says Tim Kosnoff, a Seattle attorney who represents Spokane residents who were, as children, molested by priests. "They are the family friend, the uncle, mom's boyfriend, the swim coach — people who look like you and me, who don't use violence but do just as much damage to kids."
Legislation proposing harsher sentences for a small number of sex offenders "is another example of how [legislators] talk tough but do very little," Kosnoff says.
Former Spokane County Prosecutor Don Brockett is just as blunt. "It's amazing we only talk about getting tougher on sentencing — that's the back end. My purpose is to create a deterrent."
For the last several years, reacting to the priest sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, Brockett has pushed legislation to remove statutes of limitation on criminal prosecution of sex offenders. Alaska, in 2001, was the most recent state to treat sex offenses — like murder — as crimes that can be prosecuted without a time limit. Patrick O'Donnell, the former priest at the center of the Spokane controversy, has eluded prosecution because the statue of limitations had passed. O'Donnell lives in the Seattle area.
The Washington House, however, has been unable to get such a bill out of committee "and it wasn't even pursued this year," Brockett says. Then, out of the blue came SB 6881, sponsored by Sen. Adam Kline (D-Seattle).
Kosnoff and Brockett became fans.
"It allows people to come forward when they need to," Brockett says, "and it allows society to see how much of a problem it is."
People molested as children often take decades to confront the assault, the betrayal of trust, the shame. Removing time limits to address these crimes is necessary to achieve some measure of justice, Brockett says: "Or else it remains hidden. In cases where sex crimes are not reported, those [offenders] are out there and likely to reoffend."
Kosnoff adds: "The ones who are doing this ... why shouldn't they be held accountable for the damage they caused, and who cares how long ago?"
The burden is on the person bringing the suit "to have a meritorious case," Kosnoff says. "You've got to have proof or it will be dismissed."
"This bill is such a no-brainer," he adds.
But little more than a week ago, "It died in the Judiciary Committee," says Kline. "There was no formal vote. I took a straw poll and all the Republicans opposed this, despite professing sympathy for victims of sexual assault."
Sen. Bob McCaslin (R-Spokane Valley) was among the no votes. The deal-breaker came when maverick Sen. James Hargrove (D-Hoquiam) joined the opposition. That left Kline with four votes when he needed five.
The backers have their theories. Brockett detects partisan politics — that Republicans, now in the minority, will stall this sort of legislation until they're in power and can claim credit for passage.
Kosnoff feels certain that Republicans hate "trial lawyers" (such as himself) even more than they hate child molesters and therefore won't pass such a bill.
Kline is perhaps closer to the bone. "I am sure the insurance industry told them how to vote on this," he says. "McCaslin is an interesting guy. He has the ability to think on his feet and he is a very nice guy, but his [party] leadership listens to the insurance industry."
Lawsuits against alleged molesters frequently involve insurers. That's how it has played out in Spokane, where five insurance carriers for the Catholic Diocese have resisted payouts for sexual abuse committed by priests because bishops knew of the abuse but did nothing.
"Or take parents who have an adolescent or young adult in the home and young kids come to visit and go to the bedroom to play," Kline says. "The mom ought to know what's going on. She will be a defendant in a lawsuit and her insurance will pay. And her insurance won't want that.
"Republicans want to gain as much political mileage as they can on sex offenders by being tough on perps like Duncan and not ever raising a hand against Uncle Joe," Kline adds.
Both Brockett and Kosnoff admit there would likely have been a wave of lawsuits if 6881 had passed. They see it as a good thing that finally shines a light on manipulative predators who continue to operate by shaming young victims into secrecy. They're disappointed that McCaslin opposed the bill.
McCaslin, they say, has been supportive of victims of sexual abuse who visited Olympia and has expressed interest in backing legislation to help out.
"I ran a bill last year for rape victims," McCaslin says. "It got through the Senate and died in the House."
McCaslin says he balked at the sweep of 6881. "Brockett, he wants to get rid of statutes of limitation in their entirety. I don't think we're going to do that."
Washington is already a liberal state, allowing a three-year "window" for civil action when victims of sexual assault realize the harm that was done them. Removing all constraints on future claims could create chaos, says Sen. Stephen Johnson (R-Kent), the ranking minority member on the Judiciary Committee.
"I think most members are open to the idea of extending the limits some, but not forever and ever. It makes it harder to come up with evidence," says Johnson. The insurance industry never voiced an opinion, he adds.
McCaslin says Johnson convinced him to withhold support for 6881. "[He] said, 'Bob, these cases could go on for years and years and years.' I chose not to vote for it," McCaslin says.
Kosnoff disagrees, saying the status quo protects sex offenders.
"The reality in the end is, bills like 6881 arm people to come forward once they have found the strength and courage to do so — that's what works. Identifying abusers is what works. Educating the public about abusers in the community and how they operate is what works to protect kids."
As for the ongoing efforts to create more laws aimed at the small percentage of violent sex offenders, "The rest of this stuff is after the horse is out of the barn," Kosnoff says.
Publication Date: 2/15/06