The Coker case

No person ever civilly committed under the Sexually Dangerous Persons Act in Minnesota has ever been released. Today, the Minnesota Court of Appeals left the door open — ever so slightly — to the possibility of a first.

The court today ordered a panel to reconsider the request of a convicted rapist to be released or transferred from the sexual offenders facility in Moose Lake. It ruled in the case of Christopher Coker, who had initially served time for forcing a 16-year old runaway into prostitution after sexually assaulting her four times in 24 hours, raping two 15 year-olds, and then a 17-year-old. He was committed under the state law that allows the state to lock up offenders for “treatment” after they’ve served their time.

Earlier this year, a panel turned down his request for release or transfer, even after a doctor testified “that sexual deviance was no longer an issue for Coker and that clinical concern over sexual deviance ‘has essentially remitted’ as of December 18, 2008.’ The doctor referred to Coker a “treatment success,” a significant term given the debate over whether it’s possible to “treat” sex offenders.

The Appeals Court reversed the decision and ordered a new hearing while making it clear it’s not ruling on the merit of Coker’s argument for release or transfer. But it reinforced a change in the law that the Legislature adopted in the mid ’90s — the state has to prove now that Coker will reoffend if he’s released:

To be clear, we do not hold today that a petitioner has no duty to demonstrate to the appeal panel sufficient evidence that he or she meets the statutory criteria for transfer, discharge, or provisional discharge. Nor is the burden met merely by filing a petition for a change in custody. We simply hold–as the statute dictates–that a petitioning party bears only a burden of going forward with evidence that he or she meets the statutory criteria for transfer, discharge, or provisional discharge. Once that lesser burden is met, the party opposing the petition must show by clear and convincing evidence that the petitioning party is still in need of commitment.

The case may focus more attention on one of the most controversial aspects of the Minnesota judicial system.

Dr. Michael Farnsworth, a psychiatrist and former medical director for the Department of Human Services, told MPR’s All Things Considered in October. “No one has been successfully returned to the community since that program has been started. It’s questionable whether these men are rehabilitatable with the current modalities of treatment. These are people who, by definition, have had a long history of abhorrent and dangerous sexual behavior. It’s like taking people who are in the final stages of a terminal disease, placing them in an intensive care unit, providing millions of dollars worth of treatment, and expecting them to recover.”

(Here’s the full Appeals Court ruling in the case)

  • GregS

    This worries me.

    Believe me, I applaud any time a rapist is locked away for life, but why the back door excuse of “treatment”?

    Face it, most of our habitual criminals are totally nuts. Why then are they not locked away for “treatment”? Maybe we would all be better off if they were – but there is something very creepy about using psychiatry in this manner.

    The criminal justice system sanctions people for their actions, this is sentensing people for who they are. Or worse – who a government panel thinks they are.