May 19, 2008

NY- In Courtroom 102, Focus Is on Sex Offenses

5-19-2008 New York:

THE sex cases that are heard in Judge Jeffrey A. Cohen’s courtroom are sad, disturbing stories of people accused of crimes like sexual abuse of children, rape or spreading child pornography. Courts throughout the land see such cases, but what makes Courtroom 102 in the Westchester County Courthouse here distinctive is that it handles almost nothing else.

In 2006, the state’s chief judge, Judith S. Kaye, created three pilot courts — in Nassau and Oswego Counties as well as Westchester — to handle felony-level sex offenses. The idea was that such courts might cultivate expertise among judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers who would become knowledgeable about the complexities involved — the likelihood of a suspect’s repeating a crime or the restrictions needed to prevent an offender from striking again.

Given that few issues raise more fears among Americans than the possibility of a predatory sex offender moving next door, the rationale for such a court seemed persuasive to many. The experiment has quickly been expanded to Suffolk, Brooklyn, Erie and Orange Counties.

On a recent morning, a 30-ish woman, Nilda Pagan, walked into Courtroom 102 with a quandary. She had been convicted of having sex five years ago with a 14-year-old boy and has been on probation since then on terms that require her to stay away from children under 18, except her own three. Now her 15-year-old daughter was about to give birth, and the county’s Probation Department denied Ms. Pagan the right to have this new grandchild live with her. Did that make sense? her lawyer asked.

Judge Cohen, a 59-year-old whose broad white mustache and dark hair graying at the temples make him look stately in his black judicial robes, found that restriction excessive and allowed the grandchild to live in Ms. Pagan’s home.

“I don’t see where breaking up a family serves any useful purpose whatsoever, not for the baby, not for the child and not for the defendant,” the judge ruled.

Then a teenager in low-slung pants was brought in for sentencing. His victim, a jeans-clad, ponytailed woman, stood at the next bench, and a prosecutor read a letter the woman had written describing how last year, while she was sleeping, the defendant, then 16, had broken into her apartment in Yonkers through an open window. She said he rolled over her while she was in bed, dragged her into the living room, then opened the door for two of his friends so the three could ransack the place.

The woman said in the letter that she had been raped, but none of the three men were charged with rape; the charges against them involved lesser sexual assaults. The woman told of having recurring nightmares and being afraid to sleep without a light.

“I have to live with this the rest of my life,” she wrote.

The defendant had already pleaded guilty to attempted burglary and misdemeanor sexual abuse, and Judge Cohen sentenced him to three years in state prison.

“You committed a big, bad crime — you entered someone’s house without permission,” the judge declared.

And so it went in sex offenders court on a day devoted largely to motions, sentencing and hearings. Keith Gaiser, a goateed man who had served time for rape, was sentenced to one year in jail for failing to register with the police as a sex offender when he moved to a new neighborhood. Shawn Rutledge, 37, was sentenced to six months in jail and five years on probation after pleading guilty to second-degree burglary for sneaking into a group home for mentally retarded adults in Lewisboro and having a sexual encounter with a 39-year-old resident. He was severely reprimanded by Judge Cohen for minimizing his involvement and blaming the victim.

“It was a violation of law and basically a violation of all we deem holy — taking advantage of a person in that condition,” the judge said.

Judge Cohen has been running the court since mid-January and already finds that hearing, say, five or six child abuse cases in an afternoon can be draining.

“If you let a guy out and he re-offends, there is a measure of personal responsibility, which every judge has in every case, but with sex offenses, the circumstances are very emotional,” he said. “I’m hoping that the justice that results from this type of specialized court is appropriate.”

There are some defense attorneys who question whether defendants are being treated fairly in these special courts. Diane Webster, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society of Westchester County, whose job it is to defend indigent suspects brought into Mr. Cohen’s court, complained that the state had not provided money for independent psychiatrists to evaluate offenders. Instead, she said, offenders are evaluated mostly by probation officers, who, Ms. Webster said, are not sufficiently trained in psychological issues and are part of law enforcement to boot.

Because sex offenders are lumped together in a single court, she said, distinctions are not always made between, say, a stranger who rapes someone and a 19-year-old charged with statutory rape for having consensual sex with an under-age teenager. The judicial machinery, she said, compels each offender to undergo probation with electronic ankle monitors, polygraph tests and limits on movement near parks and other places where children gather.

Ms. Webster said Judge Cohen had made strides to treat each case individually, but too often, she said, the Probation Department treats them all the same.

“It’s very rigid, which is the opposite of what a specialized court should be,” she said

Judge Cohen said the court does not dispense “cookie cutter justice” and noted that professionals received specialized training in understanding various kinds of offenders.

Rocco A. Pozzi, the county’s commissioner of probation and correction, oversees an agency that has 190 sex-offender cases under supervision. He said his department has been so accurate in deciding how extensively to monitor offenders that in the past three years only one offender has been rearrested for sex crimes.

One of Ms. Webster’s clients that day was Timothy Moore, 21, who had pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl when he was 19 and was sentenced to 10 years on probation. Ms. Webster argued that the terms were unnecessarily harsh because the sex had been consensual.

She also said that Mr. Moore was looking for work, but that when prospective employers learned about his monitoring bracelet they would refuse to hire him. Probation officials asked that he wear it for another six months. Judge Cohen split the difference at 90 days and said he would re-evaluate his order then.

Another case was disposed of — for now. ..more.. by JOSEPH BERGER

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