Monday, June 30, 2008

Death row exoneration show flaws in sex offender registration concept

While we're on the subject of botched capital murder cases in Plano, I'd be remiss not to mention another recent exoneration from death row - Michael Blair, who was convicted of raping Ashley Estell in a case that spawned Texas' sex offender registration laws. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction last week based on an actual innocence claim. Reported the Dallas News ("Appeals court overturns Michael Blair's conviction in Ashley Estell case," June 26):

Steve Miers, Mr. Blair's defense attorney who handled the original trial, said he doubts his former client will be tried again in Ashley's death.

"In my opinion, that's not very likely, because exhibit number one is going to be the press release from Mr. Roach saying that there's another suspect," Mr. Miers said.

Collin County investigators found a "person of interest" who might have been connected to Ashley's death. That man could not be cleared as a suspect, but he died more than 10 years ago.

Hair evidence that supposedly connected Mr. Blair to Ashley's body has been disproved by DNA testing that was not available at the time of the trial. Additional DNA testing showed that there was no forensic evidence placing Mr. Blair at the crime scene or connecting him to Ashley.

Ashley's death prompted state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, to create a series of stricter sex offender legislative changes, now known as "Ashley's Laws." She said in a written statement Wednesday that Mr. Blair's overturned conviction doesn't lessen the value of those laws.

"That does not diminish the fact that Ashley Estell was molested and murdered; and that Ashley's Laws ... stand as strong today as they ever have," Mrs. Shapiro said. "From 1995 until today, these laws forever changed the way the state of Texas deals with these heinous crimes."

Sen. Shapiro sounds a little defensive, and perhaps she should. She's correct that Blair's exoneration indeed does not "diminish the fact that Ashley Estell was molested and murdered." What it does do, however, is demonstrate how easily the harsh laws Sen. Shapiro spearheaded can be applied to the wrong person. (The man DNA identified as Estell's actual killer died ten years ago without being prosecuted for the crime.)

Three factors contributed to Michael Blair's wrongful conviction: Inaccurate eyewitness testimony, shoddy forensic science, and assumptions of guilt by police based on Blair's past conviction for sex crimes. The sex offender laws Shapiro spearheaded institutionalized such assumptions - encouraging instead of preventing them - making it more likely in such cases the wrong person gets convicted and the guilty man goes free.

Frankly, IMO the whole sex offender registry idea was always more a public relations stunt than a public safety strategy. The registries includes too many petty offenders, they tend to be filled with errors and perhaps most importantly from a public safety perspective, research shows that "community notification deters first-time sex offenses, but increases recidivism by registered offenders." (emphasis added)

Sen. Shapiro is correct that the registration laws she passed "forever changed the way the state of Texas deals with these heinous crimes," but not for the better, and not in ways that necessarily make anyone safer. Indeed, to the extent the laws arose from lessons learned in the Ashley Estell case, they were literally based in error from their inception.


Anonymous said...

Being under the thumb of the SO laws I can tell you first hand how much they 'change' things. Allowing one's self to look over the rights of others once now brands a person for the rest of their lives as the 'untouchable' one. I am not saying that I didn;t do something once that was incredibly wrong, and stupid, and harmful to another person. What I will say though that the idea that everyone on the registry is a 'violent sexual predator' is totally wrong. I made a very bad decision once. I have not had other 'victims' as all the reports herald that SO's have. I committed my crime 11 years ago. I grew to understand that my thinking at the time was harmful, and I changed it. I have become a better person for it and have adjusted my thought processes accordingly; However, I will always be a Register Sex Offender for the rest of my life. There was no force, nor threat in my actions, it is simply the stigma of the crime that earns me the title.

Texas' sex offender laws have pushed me to the bottom of the barrel, and I can say honestly if it were not for my wife and kids, I would have left this pathetic hellhole a long time ago.

SB said...

There is no proof that registration has prevented anything and I think it puts our kids in more danger. There are people that parent around what they see on the registry. If nobody shows in their neighborhood they allow their kids to run wild.
Stranger danger is so rare but the registry keeps the myth going. Kids would be so much safer if parents watch them and who they hang out with.
Over the years I have worked with several hundred SO's in a support role. Two of them have disappointed me and none of them involved the stranger aspect.
If people didn't shut former offenders out they would find they are some of the kindest and most caring people in the world.
At one time they caused someone pain, they can't get away from themselves, they can't take back what has been done and you end up with a huge capacity for empathy. It is almost to the point of caring too much and the reason 2nd time offenders are so rare.

Anonymous said...

I always believed the SO Registry was a tool to identify dangerous sexual predators until I learned about what happened to my daughter's friend, Jean Ponzanelli. In January of 2007 Jean was 17 when he had consensual sex with a girl he believed to be 15. Turned out she was 13. Jean was arrested and charged with Aggravated Sexual Assault - a 1st Degree Felony. Under the poor advice of lawyers, Jean took a plea on "Attempted Sexual Assault" and was placed on the Registry. Jean was a senior in high school when he was arrested. He was made to quit school. Served 6 months in jail and then released. After Jean returned home he was told he could no longer live with his mom because it was too close to a park. Jean was nailed with fines, fees, sex offender classes intended for pedophiles and rapists, and many other requirements that were impossible for Jean as he had very little parental support. Jean was arrested on probation violations. Jean's hearing is tomorrow, 7/2 in Williamson County 368th District Court. It is my understanding that DA John Bradley is recommending that Jean be sentenced to 8 years in prison. After Jean's release, he will be deported to Mexico. Jean is a legal resident of the US, but not a citizen. A sex offense is a deportable offense. He has been in the US with his family since he was a toddler. Even more discouraging is the fact that Jean would never have been charged or convicted under the Adam Walsh Act signed by Pres. George W. Bush in July of 2006.

You can follow Jean's story at KXAN.
Please consider signing the petition for Jean:

Since learning of this, I have reseached the SO and found many kids just like Jean on the Registry. Another disturbing factor is the number of kids placed on the registry who were between the ages of 10 to 15 when they committed their "offense." In Texas alone there are 60 kids born between the years of 1992 to 1995 who are on the registry (presently these kids are between the ages of 13 and 16)

The registry is becoming so bogged down with "low" risk offenders that it is difficult for the public to identify the truly "dangerous" predators. Jean is not a dangerous predator, yet he will be sent to prison for 8 years from the looks of things. Placing people on the registry who do not belong there is more harmful to society because the resources for tracking dangerous predators are stretched thin since the "low" risk offenders must be tracked.

There are several kids in Williamson County on the registry for the exact reason as Jean Ponzanelli. One kid who was also 17 at the time of his offense was evaluated by an Austin Forensic Psychologist who recommended that this kid not be placed on the registry because he was of "low" risk. The attorney filed the proper motion along with the evaluation. This kid was still placed on the Sex Offenders Registry where he remains today.

For more information on reforming the sex offender laws please see:

lovestowearhats said...

I agree with the commenters here. The registry is full of non-violent NO risk one-time offenders who never offend again. What will happen is everyone will be on the list for some reason or another before long (in the male gender) and maybe- MAYBE we can stop the county judge's son from getting free because he's a judges son or others who have done the SAME crimes or WORSE who got off of the list. Once we start putting EVERYONE on the list - and use the SAME laws for everyone, no matter who they are, things might change. Until then, Texas men, (and male children even), look out. is about my son, who chatted and never met the gal, never touched anyone yet he'll be an RSO. Unbelievable, unconstitutional yet it's a law, so we must obey--we didn't know anyone powerful - therefore he'll have to register. Yay. It's who you know in the South to go free.

SB said...

A couple of weeks ago a man was put on the registry for stealing women's underware.
A victim who was 13 will always be 13 on the registry but the offender keeps getting older. As time passes nobody realizes this was 2 kids.
Teens who have sex or constantly think about having sex sound normal to me.
There was a time when people got drunk and horny and screwed up. They were seen as reckless but not sick. We do have some crimes that are sick but a budding teen is anything but helpless.
Someone is always screaming castration for sex offenders. Heck, let's broaden that and push for chemical castration for all crimes.What dude is going to rob a 7-11 if his manhood will be suspended for a specified period of time? If this act is forced on any group of people should be the same with all groups.
When this hysteria started most of us didn't know anyone who was a sex offender or even what it was. Like AIDS, eventually it hits closer to home and it becomes a personal issue Good luck to Jean and please let us know what happens.

Anonymous said...

Jean Ponzanelli's case has been reset for July 30th, 2008 in the 368th District Court, Georgetown, Texas.

Anonymous said...

I think your criticisms of the SORs are a little misplaced. I agree that they have their faults but you are wrong to attempt to dismiss them by calling them a publicity ploy. Politics is to a large extent a publicity business. People elect their representatives to address serious issues and SORs are one way to address the serious issue of sexual crimes. Sometimes the appearance of safety is as important as the reality itself.

But the real way to eliminate sex offender registries is for there not to be any sexual offenders. If people didn't commit sex crimes, then there would be no need for SORs.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

SOR's "address" the problem by increasing recidivism and diverting police resources needed elsewhere. I agree politics is a publicity business, but this particular publicity ploy is making the public less safe. Is the "appearance" more important than THAT reality?

SB said...

Anon,If people didn't commit crimes there would be no need for prisons unless people take comfort from knowing they are there.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse I can assure you that the world would NOT have been safer had my abuser been on the registry. I can also tell you that you are being sold a bill of goods.
All of our laws and the registry are based on stranger-danger which is not the case 90 % of the time. While you are looking at the registry your child will be molested by a teacher, an uncle or your best friend. It is difficult to get parents to focus where prevention is possible while stranger-danger is a popular belief.
After a quarter of a century John Walsh finally got his son immortalized but at what price? Thousands of low risk offenders are about to be reclassified as high risk predators. These offenders did nothing to make this happen. It was done by a public that is much less concerned about the crime than they are about the punishment. This is about politics and whipping the public into a frenzy based on misinformation.
Sen Arlen Spector bought a GPS tracking company, did a little tweaking, went back to Congress, got the tracking laws passed and his company was the only one that met the specific requirements for the contract.
When the safety of the children becomes more important than the punishment we will be on the right track. Our laws are all based on stranger abduction, rape and murder which is far from the norm. We have no laws that deal with everyday reality. What we have is a complete failure based on the fact that kids remain in abusive homes.
Maybe you can help me to understand why we only care about situations that involve sex. Physical and mental abuse is just as devastating and the culprit is someone the child knows.We can either help families or keep circling like buzzards waiting for another one to fall.

SB said...

I have been reading about Jean and I signed the petition.
As Jean advances through life his "victim" will always remain 13 and the system will work just as expected.
If you don't mind I have some questions and/or suggestions.
1.Can the 13 year old appear at the hearing as a silent reminder that no force was used?
2. Judges are usually nicer when playing for a crowd. How many people do you think you can get to the hearing?

3. Was deportation a part of his original sentence?
4. Just a thought.....Anyone who serves in the military gets automatic citizenship. If this is an option or will become one in a year someone needs to contact recruiter. Prequalifying with a waiver usually takes months. This may not be what he had planned but it is a package deal that covers everything.

Anonymous said...

A sex offense is a deportable offense.

You can read Jean's story at:

Thank you for signing the petition and for your support of Jean. This is what keeps his head up; knowing there are people out here that know he should not be sitting in jail, but should be pursuing his life.

Anonymous said...

Jean Karlo Ponzanelli was sentenced to 3 years in prison today and will be deported upon release.

SB said...

Dang!! A lot of people felt the pain of this one. Maybe there are enough to vote out a judge, a district attorney and get some laws changed.

Being deported to a strange country has got to be terrifying. While locked away he will meet others in similar situations By the time he gets released he will have someone to go to. A future in Mexico may be a blessing in disguise. Here he would have no future but this is home and where is support system is. I hope he is a strong young man. Hugs to all of you.

Anonymous said...

Shirley, check out the story on kxan's website:

Please be sure to comment.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted some input...Let me quickly explain. I have two sons both now on the registy. The first one met a girl who stated that she was 18. Their first date she hung out with him til 1 am. He never hide his age, 19 at the time. She knew he was in college and where he worked. He went to her house met what we lster found out was her 15 yr old sister. When my son found out her real age, 12, he called it off with her. She keep calling him telling him she was having problems and felt like killing herself. Somehow her father called my son and my son admitted that they had dated, no sex. He told the father he kissed her. Long story short. Scared he took a plea and now has to register.

My other son 16 at the time had oral sex with my 7 yr nephew. Wait ther is a few things that I need to say. My son was placed in a behavioral treatment center when he was 4 for 30 days. Came out had a few more behavioral issues then he stabled out. No problems....Never in trouble in school, good grades, in the band, worked at a grocery story. He is a or was a buding writer. Somewhere during his 9th and 10th grade year he starting feeling out of place. Had what I call thoughts of somthing happening to him with a male when he was younger. He begin to think he was gay. So he did what most kids do...the internet. Well to shorten this story. He was sent over 500 pictures from various places of litte boys engaging in sexual acts. He did not have any to "trade" with these other boys which he felt like accepted him online so he created some...hence my nephew. He was tried as an adult sentenced as a juvenile. Now has 2 felonies and has to register for life. What this son did was wrong, but I don't understand how he is deemed for life a predator. He spend 9 months in therapy, where I was told by his doctor that he made a stupid judgement call but far from a preditor. Another doctor hired by the courts met with my son for 2 hours as classified him as a high level repeat offender. How do you go from 0 to 60 like that. Am I wrong for feeling like he should be punished but not to this extent. Please give me any feed back. I am just trying to understand what is the differenct between a predator, a stupid one time decision and a girl being too grown. In the first situation where is the accountablilty on the girls part??? Thank you

SB said...


Go here. It is a small support group but you can be directed elsewhere if need be.

Anonymous said...

Also check out: