The Houston Press ran story entitled, “The Ten Hottest Women on the Texas Sex Offender List”. That’s right, a news organization ran a story which posted the pictures of female sex offenders and ranked their “hotness”. Shortly after the article was published, The Houston Press posted an explanation and apology. The article was in poor taste, that’s a given, but the reason behind it was crystal clear to me. I got it but only because of a former client, I’ll call “Jack”. When I was a defense attorney, I represented Jack, a convicted sex offender. I don’t remember the all details of his sex offense but I will never forget the lesson I learned.
Jack had violated a section of the sex offender registration law. As best I can recall, Jack was convicted of having sex with an underage girl; however, upon his release from jail, Jack failed to give notice to the Sheriff’s department of his anticipated compliant address. Jack was homeless, as he had lost his apartment while serving his jail sentence. Originally from Florida, Jack had moved to Alabama because of a girlfriend but she was gone too. I was tasked with helping Jack get out of jail with a “good” address.
I worked with the investigator in charge of sex offender registration in order to get him a temporary address until he could make his way back to Florida. Sounds simple in principle but in reality, it was very difficult. Ultimately, Jack was approved to stay in Huntsville for 3 days at local motel. At the end of those 3 days, he was to move to a pre-approved address in Florida. The investigator had to work with Florida officials – and basically worked miracles to get Jack accepted by the state of Florida. We formulated a plan, now to execute it.
Day One: I met Jack at the jail upon his release. I gave him a coat, money (wired from his mom, who had very little means), a pack of cigarettes and instructions. The first thing the next morning, Jack had to take a taxi to the police precinct to fill out paperwork.
Day Two: I met Jack at the precinct. We got the paperwork filled out. But now, Jack had to go to probation services, which was clear across town. I made a decision that, in retrospect, probably wasn’t the best but at the time, it seemed right. I let Jack get into my car so I could get him to his probation officer. Everything went smoothly. I stayed with Jack at the probation office, and afterwards I drove him back to his motel. When I dropped him off, I gave him a map to the bus station. He was to make the long walk to the bus station, pick up a ticket that would be waiting for him, and get on the right bus. I told him that other than stops by the bus at various stations between here and there, he was NOT to go anywhere else but those bus stations. I had some extra change in my car, I gave him what little money I could find and I wished him luck.
Day Three: It was Saturday morning. My husband and I, along with our two children went to eat a local dive for breakfast. My cell phone rang. It was Jack’s mother. She was in a panic. Apparently, Florida officials had contacted her about Jack’s proposed Florida residence. From what I could gather, there was an issue with a final approval. On a greasy napkin, I scribbled her phone number and the contact number for the officer in Florida. Now, I had to find Jack.
I piled my kids in the car and directed my husband to drive the route that I had previously mapped out for Jack – from his seedy motel to the Greyhound station. I told my children what Jack looked like, and as we drove, all of us, kids included, scanned the streets in hopes of catching Jack before he boarded the bus. I knew we had about two hours to find him. Because of where we ate breakfast, we started looking in a neighborhood that was about half way between the motel and bus station. As we trolled the streets, I explained to my children, that Jack was a criminal client who had gotten into trouble and needed my help.
For some reason, I had my husband drive to the station because my gut told me that he just might be there early. I thought this because when we met at the precinct on day 2, he was early, very early, waiting in the parking lot.
As luck would have it – Jack was indeed early, he was sitting in the bus station. I took him outside so we could discuss why I was there – away from the crowd in the waiting area. I walked him to my car so that I could grab my cell for him to use. He called Florida and his mom. Everything was a go. Weirdly, I introduced Jack to my husband, they shook hands. Jack saw my children in the backseat. My youngest waived and issued a faint “Hello”. Jack smiled and said, “Hey guys!” They were hard to ignore as their eyes were as big as saucers. They continued to stare at him in a way that under any other circumstance, I would have scolded them.
The minute I got back into the car, my children, almost in unison, told me that Jack didn’t look like a criminal. As my husband drove away, all I could think about was that my children came in contact with a sex offender…OMG! What did I just do?! They heard him speak – as the passenger door stayed open as Jack and I discussed his case. They heard him talk to his mother and his soon-to-be probation officer. He was polite and well-spoken, certainly criminals aren’t like that, at least according to my children. They had studied him – they were trying to reconcile his looks with a crime. Jack was clean shaven, in good physical shape and perhaps someone one might say was a bit handsome, totally unlike any bad guy they had envisioned.
After hearing my children’s comments and confusion about Jack, it hit me. Now, I know what I had just done was probably not Mother of the Year material, but it was one of the most valuable experiences I could have given them.
They learned that some criminals look like us. They look like friends, family, or just regular people that they come in contact with on a daily basis. At the grocery store, at the mall, at school…these types of people are everywhere, particularly sex offenders. They blend in, their crimes are in secret and many times these types of crimes are committed by the very people we least expect and lots of times, by people we trust.
The Houston Press message was good, but the means of delivery was bad. However, it got people talking, bloggers blogging, and apparently garnered enough attention that an apology and explanation was issued. The point was made. According to the journalist who wrote the piece, the idea was conceived after speaking with a sex crimes prosecutor who had pointed out that sex offenders don’t look like sex offenders; although the article sought to highlight the prosecutor’s words, to some it trivialized child rape and other sex crimes. “That’s why I made the conscious decision to include the victims’ ages: To show that “normal-looking” people, people you could pass any day on the street — or who you might think are “hot” — are capable of monstrous things.”
As a sex crimes prosecutor, I see those “monstrous things” every single day, and I call them crimes. Those crimes are committed by fathers, mothers, preachers, teachers, and a host of other types of people…people who look just like people.*
*For those readers who are caregivers, please include in your stranger danger talks, discussions about good v. bad “touches”, body safety, good v. bad secrets, and internet/social media safety.