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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Stephen Marshall killed two men who were on the sex offender registry in Maine, and then killed himself.

One of the two men, Joseph Gray, was on the registry for raping a child. The other, William Elliott, was on because as a 19-year-old, he had slept with his girlfriend before she turned 16. Their murders are the latest acts of vigilantism linked to public sex offender registries. And as NPR's Libby Lewis reports, they highlight the fact that many states lump together hardcore predators with people who may pose no risk to the public.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

When Mark Perk read about the men murdered in Maine, he thought that could've been me.

Mr. MARK PERK (Listed on Illinois Sex Offender Registry): They put my name and address on there. Anyone can find me. Yeah, it scared us.

LEWIS: Perk is on Illinois' sex offender registry for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl. She's now his wife and the mother of their two children. Perk says he knows he broke the law, but he says he's no child molester. He's just treated like one.

Mr. PERK: My wife and I get pulled over constantly because our license plate is registered to a sex offender and they drag us out of the car. They're looking, you know, they think you're a child molester because they put you on the same list. Neighbors are constantly coming by the house. They stare at the house. I've had so many calls. I'm gonna kill you. I'm gonna get over there. You got, you know, you child molester, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. We've had to change our phone number a bunch of times.

LEWIS: It's easy to find Mark Perk because of Megan's Law. Congress passed it in 1996 after 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and killed by a convicted sex offender living on her street. Megan's Law requires states to share information on sex offenders with the public. But it leaves it up to the states to decide how.

About half the states have taken the path of Maine and Illinois. They simply post most of their registered sex offenders on the Internet. And they require the public be notified when any offender moves into a neighborhood whether he's a danger or not.

The websites and the rules for sex offenders don't distinguish between hardcore predators and people like Mark Perk and William Elliot. People who may show a little risk for committing future crimes.

In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that that broad-brush approach is perfectly legal. So Mark Perk is listed along with a rapist and a sexual predator on the registry for his neighborhood south of Chicago.

Mr. PERK: It's absolutely disgusting what they're doing to children these pedophiles. But, you know, how do you think I feel having my face and my name and my address next to these guys? I'd like to kill them myself, you know.

LEWIS: He has to follow the same rules. He can't live near a school or go to a park. He says police spend as much time monitoring him as they would a violent predator. In this climate, a lot of people aren't going to listen to Mark Perk. The sex offender laws are enormously popular with politicians, law enforcement and victims' groups.

Diane Gelbach runs a program for sexual-assault victims out of Massachusetts. She figures it this way, some of the bad guys network by sharing photos and names of their prey. Why shouldn't the public network, too?

Ms. DIANE GELBACH (Victim Advocate Program): In other words, here is information about sex offenders. So I just see it as a, the balance of power has been against victims, witnesses of these crimes. I just see registries as a logical outworking of people trying to keep people safe.

LEWIS: But do they work?

Professor WAYNE LOGAN (Law Professor): We don't know.

That's Wayne Logan, a law professor who's looked at how the registries and the community notification in Megan's Law have played out. It's clear they help the police, but Logan says the few studies that have come out aren't clear on whether these laws deter sex offenders. He says there is data showing that sex offenders, no matter how they're defined, are being tossed out of their homes and their jobs across the country.

Ron Weiner(ph) can attest to that. He's a clinical social worker who treats sex offenders in Washington D.C. and Maryland. Right now, he's treating a woman offender as part of her probation. He won't say what she did. He's clear he doesn't think she'll get into trouble again. But now, he's not sure what's going to happen to her.

Mr. RON WEINER (Clinical Social Worker): You know, the probation officer showed up at the house, excuse me, at the apartment complex, and the police came around and put the notices that there's a convicted sex offender in this complex. And she was forced to move.

LEWIS: What is she going to do?

Mr. WEINER: She's going to be on the street.

LEWIS: Does she have a family?

Mr. WEINER: Mm hmm. She does have a family.

LEWIS: Children?

Mr. WEINER: Yes she does.

LEWIS: Mark Perk has children, too. He wants to know who's going to protect them if the vigilantes come to his house. Libby Lewis, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can find a map listing the different states' policies on listing sex offenders at our website NPR.org.

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