Girls' Deaths Reignite Calls For More Predator Laws

Two cases in California have renewed calls to strengthen laws designed to protect communities from sex offenders like John Gardner, who is charged in the murder of one teen and is being investigated in the death of another. But there's already a raft of laws, named after earlier victims. Legal experts say the laws in place should be better enforced.

It's been a horrifying couple of weeks for parents of teenagers in San Diego. First, 17-year-old Chelsea King went missing then turned up raped and murdered. A few days later, another teenage girl who'd been missing for over a year was found dead.

Convicted sex offender John Gardner has been charged in the first murder and is under investigation in the death of the second girl, 14-year-old Amber Dubois. Both cases have spurred calls by politicians and parents for tougher laws to deal with sex offenders.

A String Of Recent Tragedies

Chelsea King was a high school senior in the San Diego suburb of Poway. She played the French horn and was on the cross-country team. It was not unusual for her to go running after school, to clear her head.

But alarm bells went off for King's parents when she didn't return from a run on the evening of Feb. 25. Five days after she went missing, King's body was found in a shallow grave in the same park where she had gone running.

"One of the nicknames that I always called my daughter is 'my angel.' She's my angel forever," said her father, Brent King, at a vigil that evening.

Four days after that vigil, police found the skeletal remains of 14-year-old Amber Dubois. The freshman disappeared on her way to school early last year. At a vigil for her, Dubois' father, Maurice, urged mourners to channel their grief.

"Please take a minute for every tear you have ever shed for Amber, for Chelsea and for any other child who has suffered at the hands of these predators and come back tomorrow and take just as many minutes of action in our fight to protect our children," he said.

What's On The Books

California already has a slew of sex offender laws. Among them is Jessica's Law, barring sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet from schools or parks.

And there's Megan's Law, which created a public registry of sex offenders. But legal experts say the case of Gardner — charged in King's murder and a target in the Dubois investigation — is exhibit A in the limitations of Megan's Law.

The Megan's Law Web site lists Gardner's address in Riverside County, north of San Diego. But he also visited his mother's home in San Diego near the area where King was found dead. And Gardner registered as a sex offender late last year in the town of Escondido where Dubois disappeared.

"The registered sex offenders — even though they have an address in one city, they're free to move from city to city as anybody else is," said Boyd Long, the assistant police chief in San Diego.

He added, "So the sex offender who may be in your neighborhood may not be in your neighborhood; they may be in somebody else's neighborhood, and those people just don't know that."

A Cry For Stronger Laws

But even if you do know, what can you do?

"Whatever precautions are taken to protect a community from sexual predators, they can never be foolproof, unless we do not have a free society," said former San Diego County District Attorney Paul Pfingst.

Some local parents, like Karen Doll-Murphy, want laws that would lock up sexual predators for life after one conviction.

"It has been proven time and time again that they get out and they re-offend and they re-offend," she said.

Not Enforced

But San Diego criminal defense attorney Gerald Blank says one-strike laws for sex offenders already exist. The courts just aren't enforcing them. And John Gardner is a prime example, Blank says.

"He would have come under the one-strike law," Blank said. "He could have been put away for life in 2000 by the prosecution."

Gardner pleaded guilty 10 years ago to committing a lewd act on a child and false imprisonment. The violent nature of his crime, Blank says, qualified him for the one-strike rule. But prosecutors cut a plea deal with Gardner and asked for six years. Defense lawyer Blank says that was a big mistake.

"The criminal justice system, in my opinion, failed miserably here," Blank said. "The prosecution could have put John Gardner away, and he would not have been on our streets at the time Chelsea King was killed."

Criminal lawyers say there's not so much a need for new laws as a need for proper enforcement of the ones we have. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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