Ruling Angers Abuse Victims
Will Free Some Sex Offenders in Calif.
Los Angeles Times [California]
June 29, 2003
Los Angeles - It was 2:26 a.m. Friday, and Lawrence Lovell was one of the first out. The defrocked priest, who was awaiting trial on charges of molesting four altar boys between 1980 and 1984, left the Los Angeles County jail after less than a week behind bars.
Twelve hours later, another former priest, Michael Wempe, left his jail cell with a smile on his face. Wempe, whose bail had been set two weeks ago at $2 million, has been charged with molesting five boys 20 years ago.
Both men have denied the charges against them. At hearings this week, their cases likely will be dismissed, prosecutors say.
And so it went as prosecutors scrambled to come to grips with the repercussions of a Supreme Court decision invalidating a California law that had allowed decades-old child molestation cases to be prosecuted.
Lovell and Wempe are among hundreds of people - some convicted, some confessed, some still awaiting trial - who will be released from jails and prisons across California as a result of Thursday's decision.
The law had essentially nullified the state's three-year statute of limitations on sex crimes. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the law was unconstitutional because it was made retroactive to past crimes.
For many prosecutors, police, victims' advocates and the victims themselves, the court's decision was hard to take. The affected cases all involve not just allegations of abuse, but strong corroborating evidence, which was required under the 1994 law the high court struck down.
"These are cases where almost always the perpetrator admitted the abuse in either direct interviews with investigators or the victims played a role in gathering evidence; making phone calls or meeting with the person while they were wired," said Alameda County sex crimes prosecutor Kevin Murphy.
Friday morning, Murphy withdrew charges against Stephen Kiesle, a former priest who told investigators he had molested a number of children three decades ago. Kiesle, who used to call himself the "pied piper" of his neighborhood, had served time in the late 1970s in a separate child molestation case.
In Santa Clara County, Assistant District Attorney Chuck Willingham spent long hours after the ruling calling victims to let them know the outcome. About 100 cases in his county will be affected.
"I'm sorry," he told nearly a dozen men and women whom he had worked with to build strong cases. "This is terrible, and there's really nothing we can do about it."
The response: "Anger, disdain, confusion, a lacking of understanding as to how this could have possibly happened, resignation to outrage," he said. "These are not easy conversations to be a part of."
One case, Willingham said, involved a husband and wife convicted on multiple counts of molesting children. They had a sentencing hearing scheduled for next week and faced life in prison. Instead they will be released.
"The reality is they won the child sexual predator lottery yesterday," Willingham said. " ... You're scot-free."
Kay Duffy, the attorney for the Rev. Carl Sutphin, 71, who is charged with 14 counts of molestation, disputed that idea.
Her client no longer faces the specter of prison, but his life has been turned upside down by being publicly labeled a child molester, she said.
"I don't think anybody is walking away from this thinking they got away with something," Duffy said.
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