An emotionally charged murder case that went to trial this week in Trenton, New Jersey, has commanded American national attention over and above that accorded even to a particularly poignant child murder. It had made history - and law - well before the trial opened, and what is at stake is not just the life of the alleged killer, but the fate of a highly popular, but increasingly controversial, piece of legislation.
The defendant is Jesse Timmendequas, 36, who is additionally charged with kid- napping and sexual assault. The seven-year old victim is known across the US only as "Megan", and the law that her killing inspired requires courts to inform local people when a convicted sex offender is released or paroled into their community.
On 29 July 1994, Megan Kanka is said to have knocked on the front door of Timmendequas, a recently-arrived neighbour, and asked to see the puppy he had just acquired. He invited her in. In the words of the prosecution lawyer, "Unsuspecting, trusting, seven-year old Megan walked into the defendant's house ... She would never walk out."
Her mother said that at first she had been unconcerned about her daughter's disappearance because "this is such a nice neighbourhood". But her illusions had been shattered when police showed her pieces of her daughter's clothing that had been found in the dustbin of the house opposite - where Timmendequas lived.
He is said to have led police to a nearby park where they found Megan's body. Several statements and a signed confession eventually followed. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
The subsequent revelation that Timmendequas already had two convictions for sex offences provoked fury in the quiet suburban district of Hamilton Township, and Megan's mother led a campaign to require the authorities to notify neighbours when a convicted sex offender moves in. The campaign developed into a national crusade, and 41 states followed New Jersey's lead in passing "Megan's laws".
The exact provisions of the laws vary, but they all permit - or require - neighbours to be told when anyone who has a conviction for a sex offence settles nearby. They augment a requirement for sex offenders in all states to be registered with the police.
This week's trial has revived all the passion and outrage that was unleashed by Megan's murder. But there is also a sense in which it has come only just in time for the law's supporters. In eight states, including New Jersey, the "Megan's laws" are currently on hold: they are on the statute book but not being enforced because legal challenges are pending. Released sex offenders must register with the police, but there is no obligation to make their place of residence public.
The legal challenges reflect the gathering strength of a reverse campaign that was launched when the sweeping effects of the new law started to become apparent. Those joining the backlash included not only civil liberties activists and people concerned with privacy, but also some of the very state legislators who had helped pass the original "Megan's laws".
They say they underestimated the strength of popular anger and revulsion where sex offenders are concerned. They had not expected, they said, that requiring released sex offenders to register their addresses and supplying the information to neighbours would mean - with rare exceptions - that the individual concerned would become an outcast, unable to settle anywhere for long, unable to start a new life even though he had served his sentence.
Some say the legislators' miscalculation only illustrated how far officialdom was out of touch with popular opinion. One well-documented case is that of a former offender who settled in Orange County, California. Neighbours were alerted to his presence by police leaflets giving his picture and warning: "a serious sex offender has been released into the community". People were advised to protect themselves and their children. Not only did they do that, but also they photocopied the leaflets, posted them on lampposts, and organised protests.
The former offender was hounded from his first new neighbourhood by public demonstrations, placards and graffiti. He received death threats and lost his job. He found a new flat, but the manager terminated his lease whenhis identity was reported.
In one district of Georgia, names were publicised in public libraries - and then broadcast on local radio. New Mexico is proposing to post the names and social security numbers of offenders on the Internet.
Some of those now trying to change the law argue that sex offenders will simply choose to flout the law on registration if they are made outcasts. Others say that more general warnings could be issued in the neighbourhood, without pictures or addresses. Some of the "Megan's laws" anyway require notification only in the case of "high-risk"offenders.
In time, the rights of children to protection and the constitutional rights of individuals to privacy are likely to be weighed against each other in court. Until then, the balance will remain uncertain, but the odds that Jesse Timmendequas will ever benefit from a revised law look slim.
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