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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

This January, Wendy Whitaker and her husband bought their first home, a turn-of-the-last-century bungalow on a quiet street in Harlem, Ga., just outside Augusta.

A month later, police showed up on their doorstep. Wendy would have to move, they explained, or face arrest.

click to enlarge Convicted nine years ago under Georgia's old sodomy law, Wendy Whitaker is required to re-register every year as a sex offender. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • Convicted nine years ago under Georgia's old sodomy law, Wendy Whitaker is required to re-register every year as a sex offender.

A 26-year-old college student on federal disability, Whitaker doesn't fit most people's image of a sex offender. But, because of an ill-considered 10th-grade blowjob -- resulting in her conviction for an act that's no longer crime in Georgia -- she has spent nearly a decade on Georgia's sex-offender registry.

Harlem police told Whitaker she was in violation of a state law that prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, playground or other place where children congregate. Before she and her husband of six years bought the house, she says, they made sure the property was far enough away from a public park down the street. What the Whitakers didn't realize was that a nearby church was operating a small day-care center.

As a result, they've had to move into a trailer park across the county line. They're sharing a two-bedroom single-wide with Whitaker's brother-in-law and his teenage daughter.

"We're paying a mortgage for my cat to live here," she says of the house she and her husband have had to leave behind. When she stops by to check on the property or do laundry, she says, her neighbors routinely call the cops, who drop by to make sure she isn't trying to move back in.

Now, Georgia's strict new sex-offender law -- signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue in April but delayed in federal court before it could take effect July 1 -- could force Whitaker out of the trailer park as well, leaving her with few options for living anywhere in the state. Under a nebulous loitering provision in the new law, she might not even be allowed to go to church.

"This is causing a lot of problems in my marriage," she says. "My husband can't quit his job. What are we supposed to do, separate? If this new law goes into effect, I really don't know what I'll do. I'm absolutely at wit's end."

The easy response to Whitaker's dilemma, and the one implied by Georgia legislators, who overwhelmingly approved the new law, can be summed up in two words: Tough luck.

Sponsored by House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, the sex-offender law increases minimum sentences for most violent sexual offenses to 25 years; requires the most dangerous offenders to wear a GPS tracking device for the rest of their lives; and requires those convicted of felony sex offenses to remain on the state registry for life.

But the law's thorniest provision expands the existing 1,000-foot residency restriction to include school bus stops, which renders virtually all of Georgia off-limits to the state's 10,000 or so registered sex offenders.

In March, when Keen, a former state head of the Christian Coalition, described to a Senate committee the intended impact his law would have on sex offenders, he didn't mince words: "Candidly, senators, they will in many cases have to move to another state."

Only one senator, Democrat Regina Thomas of Savannah, voted against the bill. In the House, it sailed through with token opposition from a handful of Democrats.

"Sex offenders are the most reviled people in society," explains a legislator who, despite misgivings, voted in favor of the bill and asked not to be named. "They're one step above terrorists; there's no political downside to cracking down on these folks."

But critics say the new law -- which is awaiting a judge's ruling this week to determine whether it can go into effect -- is likely to do more harm than good.

Law enforcement officials warn that the law is practically unenforceable and that, instead of driving offenders out of Georgia, it will cause many to go into hiding.

Lawyers predict the harsh residency restrictions and increased mandatory minimum sentences will remove incentives for accused offenders to plead guilty, which inevitably means more child molesters will escape conviction.

And experts in sex-offender treatment claim the law will do little to protect children and could actually result in more repeat crimes by offenders cut off from their families, jobs and treatment programs.

In other words, Keen may have produced a near-perfect example of a poison law -- not simply unfair or unsavory, but likely to do just the opposite of what was intended.

As DeKalb County Sheriff, Thomas Brown relentlessly attacks the new law at public gatherings and in the press, he doesn't seem a bit worried about being labeled soft on sex offenders.

"I have a responsibility to tell people in DeKalb when I can't protect them, and this law would have that effect," Brown says. "This law is nothing but election-year politicking by the Republicans."

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