Life in the shadows 

Now facing a legal challenge, Georgia's war on sex offenders could punish minor violators while failing to focus on the worst ones

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But it didn't work out that way. As a registered sex offender, Whitaker has had to report to the local sheriff's office every year to be photographed and fingerprinted, and she was required to register in person with the county school board. Acquaintances have come across her name and photo on the Georgia Bureau of Investigation website. She says her neighbors in Harlem have shunned her since being alerted by sheriff's deputies of her conviction.

And not long ago, her mug shot and a map to her home were shown on the local TV news as part of a weekly segment devoted to keeping tabs on area sex offenders.

"I had to explain to people why I'm on TV for something I did nine years ago," she says. "It makes me afraid that a vigilante might try to hurt me, not knowing what it is I actually did."

Two years ago, she quit her job at a local pizza parlor and filed for federal disability, citing sleep apnea and a severe weight problem.

Whitaker doesn't believe the choices she's made in her life qualify her to be much of a role model. But she also argues that a law that applies the same harsh restrictions to teenage statutory offenders like her as it does to serial rapists is hurting people who pose little threat to society.

Of the more than 10,600 registered sex offenders living in Georgia, many were convicted of child molestation and rape. But thousands of others are on the registry for having consensual sex when they were teenagers, or for lesser crimes such as flashing, peeping through windows and sexual battery, which often translates into inappropriate touching. One of Whitaker's co-plaintiffs, a 23-year-old Georgia State student, got on the list for drunkenly groping a co-ed at a keg party.

John Bankhead, spokesman for the GBI, says his department had hoped lawmakers would do more to draw distinctions between non-violent sex offenders and those deemed potentially dangerous.

"We felt it would benefit the public to know who on the list were, say, child molesters," he says.

Although Keen's law mandates a review process that is expected to place more offenders in that category, only 14 men -- six of whom are still in prison -- are currently designated sexual predators by the state.

Adding insult to injury in Whitaker's case is the fact that Georgia's sodomy law was overturned in late 1998, just three months after her conviction. The mere two-year age difference between Whitaker and her classmate would have spared her from the registry under one of the few amendments that Keen allowed on his bill: a much-publicized clause that exempts such "Romeo-and-Juliet" convictions. The new law, however, does not apply retroactively to those already on the registry.

"It's not fair that they're applying the new restrictions on me, but I don't get any of the benefits," Whitaker says.

That's why she has devoted her time in recent weeks to serving as lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuit by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the ACLU of Georgia that seeks to block the new offender law from taking effect.

"Just because you're on the sex-offender registry doesn't mean you're a sexual predator," she says. "There's a lot of people like me, and there's no reason they shouldn't be allowed to live around children. Some have children of their own."

Whitaker wasn't the kind of sex offender Georgia lawmakers had in mind when they passed Keen's bill back in April. Many of them announced at the time that they were thinking about the fate of Jessica Lunsford, the 9-year-old Florida girl who in early 2005 was snatched from her bedroom, sexually assaulted, murdered and buried.

Last week, jury selection began in the trial of Jessica's accused killer, John Couey, who was captured outside Augusta after fleeing into Georgia from Florida. A convicted sex offender with a long criminal history and a face that would make any parent shudder, Couey makes a perfect boogeyman for law-and-order advocates like CNN's Nancy Grace and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. Both TV show hosts have devoted hours of highly charged coverage to the upcoming trial.

O'Reilly, in particular, has been on a yearlong crusade to push get-tough legislation modeled on Florida's "Jessica's law" in all states, as well as through Congress. Keen's bill followed that state's example of requiring the very worst offenders to wear monitoring devices for life. But the Georgia lawmaker went even further by expanding the state's already tough residency restrictions to include school bus stops -- of which there are tens of thousands.

In last winter's legislative session, members of both parties allowed recent bills dealing with such issues as illegal immigration and eminent domain to evolve as the product of a normal give-and-take debate between lawmakers, interest groups and qualified experts. Not so for the sex-offender bill. Aside from the Romeo-and-Juliet provision, Keen would accept no compromises.

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