After more than a month of legal wrangling and admittedly ambivalent court rulings, it appears that the most far-reaching and punitive provision of Georgia's new sex offender law will, at least for now, be shelved.
Last Friday, federal Judge Clarence Cooper for the second time blocked a measure that bars offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop, a restriction that would have forced most of the state's more than 10,600 registered sex offenders from their homes.
But while recent attention has focused on bus stops, the voluminous new law authored by state Rep. Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons, includes several lesser-known provisions that already have had a life-altering impact on a number of Georgians.
Last week, George Hudson was arrested by Cobb deputies because the property line of his Smyrna apartment complex is within 1,000 feet of a church, a restriction that went into effect July 1.
Hudson, 55, joined the sex offender registry in January after pleading guilty to felony sexual battery for inappropriately touching his 11-year-old daughter. His brother, Charles, who shares the apartment, says the charge stemmed from a disagreement between Hudson and his ex-wife.
Although Hudson was sentenced only to five years probation in January, he now faces a minimum of 10 years in prison for remaining in his apartment.
Other jurisdictions, however, haven't adopted Cobb's by-the-book approach. In Gwinnett, about 10 offenders who, like Hudson, are in violation of a provision of the new law, have been cut some slack by the sheriff's office. "We're trying our best to work with them and give them time to get relocated," explains Cpl. Karen Pirkle, who has managed that county's sex offender registry for the past five years. "It takes a while to sell a house."
Friday's ruling by Cooper was prompted in part by tough-talking announcements by Danny Craig, district attorney for the Augusta Judicial Circuit, who said last week that he planned to prosecute local sex offenders for violating the bus-stop provision.
Craig's hard-line posture may be an attempt to atone for a 2003 scandal in which he bowed to pressure from then-state Sen. Don Cheeks, R-Augusta, to have an accused child molester dropped from the sex offender registry a week after the man pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. After the mother of the 3-year-old victim complained, Craig publicly apologized and Cheeks lost re-election.
On July 25, Cooper lifted his initial temporary restraining order against the provision, arguing that it was currently unenforceable since no local school boards had formally designated their systems' bus stops, as seemingly required by the new law.
Within hours, at the urging of local law enforcement officials, the Columbia County School Board had approved just such a resolution, effectively requiring three-quarters of the county's 40 registered sex offenders to move away from the county's more than 5,000 school bus stops.
"I think Mr. Craig may have jumped the gun," Cooper said in court last Friday while hearing renewed arguments to block the bus-stop provision by the Southern Center for Human Rights, which represents several sex offenders affected by the new law.
One Southern Center client is Joseph Linaweaver, who in 2000 was convicted as a 16-year-old for having consensual oral sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend in the back of a school bus. As a resident of Columbia County, Linaweaver is trapped in a wicked Catch-22, explained attorney Sarah Geraghty. The bus-stop provision would place much of the county off-limits to Linaweaver, but the terms of his probation prohibit him from leaving the county.
In Atlanta, a former radio DJ who moved to Grant Park about a year ago is so outraged that he took to the airwaves to blast the new law.
Saban Brown, a hip-hop artist who performs under the name Miami Blacc, recently appeared on a WAOK-AM (1380) morning show to describe his tribulations as a registered sex offender. Brown was convicted in 1999 in Alabama for having sex with an underage girl who he says lied about her age when he met her at a Birmingham nightclub.
Brown, who was sentenced to two years probation, says he's moved through four states to escape his past but has been fired from jobs and evicted from apartments once it's discovered he's a sex offender. Now in a neighborhood where small churches seem to sprout on every block, he could be looking at another move.
"I've had a hard time finding anywhere to stay since I've been on the registry," says Brown. "My life has been shattered because I made one mistake. It's important that I fight this."
In the months ahead, Southern Center lawyers will attempt to have Keen's new law deemed unconstitutional on the grounds that it represents ex post facto punishment for thousands of Georgia sex offenders, many of whom, like Linaweaver and Brown, were convicted of non-violent statutory offenses.
The public debate over the sex offender law can only be expected to heat up with the news that convicted rapist Michael William Ledford has been charged with last week's brutal murder of Jennifer Ewing, 54, who was snatched from the Silver Comet Trail in Paulding County.
Southern Center Director Lisa Kung hopes the ensuing political rhetoric doesn't obscure her organization's main point: "Keen wrote a disaster of a law."
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