No hiding place for released sex offenders
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Friday 13 January 1995
At 3 am last Sunday, two men dressed in black broke into the house where the parolee Michael Groffe had come to live in Phillipsburg, 70 miles west of New York, saying they were looking for "the child molester". Several other people as well as Mr Groffe were in the house, and the intruders set upon the wrong man. Police were called and the two were arrested.
According to local prosecutors, the affair is the direct consequence of New Jersey's so-called "Megan's Law", named after a seven-year-old girl murdered in July 1994 by a neighbour whose previous sex crimes were unknown to local residents. The measure, rushed through the state assembly in time to come into force on 1 January, requires that local schools and youth organisations be notified if a convicted sex offender moves to their community.
The episode is far from the first of its kind. Similar examples of vigilante justice have been reported in Texas and Washington state. California and Illinois are just two of other states where courts have struck down legislation like that of New Jersey but insist that freed offenders must register with police.
Each time the basic conflict is the same; between society's desire to be protected against former convicts, especially sex offenders, who may repeat their crime, and the right of an individual to lead a normal life once he has been fully punished by the law. Either way, however, his chances of quiet haven are lessening - as another recently freed New Jersey sex offender is learning to his cost.
Carlos Diaz, who had served 12 years for rape, was released at the New Year. His lawyers successfully appealed against the application of "Megan's Law," which a judge held to be "unconstitutional added punishment". That was to reckon without the citizens' militia, the Guardian Angels, who distributed "most wanted"-style fliers to residents of Mr Diaz's former town. The police have not intervened.
"These laws just raise the level of fear, anxiety and anger," said a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, "and they can foster a climate which can lead to vigilantism."
But with public anxiety over crime showing no sign of abating, vigilantism is only likely to increase. Many states have already passed "three strikes and you're out" laws imposing mandatory life imprisonment after a third serious offence.
Georgia indeed has brought in a "two strikes" law. As events in New Jersey show, even that may not be enough.
- 1 Which country would be hardest to invade?
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 Royal baby girl born: Duchess of Cambridge's second child will be a princess thanks to Queen
- 5 Teen suffers embarrassing wardrobe malfunction in front of deputy PM
Which country would be hardest to invade?
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
UK weather: Severe weather warning for snow and torrential rain over bank holiday weekend
Royal baby girl born: Duchess of Cambridge's second child will be a princess thanks to Queen
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
Indonesia executions live: 'Hysterical' families heard prisoners being shot dead by firing squad
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...
£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...
£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...
£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...