Decision to free felon haunts jurors
Some say it was unfair to be asked if rapist would attack again
Friday, February 11, 2005
By RUTH TEICHROEB AND JESSICA BLANCHARD
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTERS
For two grueling weeks, the 12 jurors heard conflicting opinions about Curtis Shane Thompson.
Was Thompson still a vicious serial rapist who should be locked up indefinitely to prevent him from striking again? Or was he a felon who deserved another chance after finding religion and serving 17 years in prison?
The jury's answer on Oct. 3, 2003, stunned King County prosecutors.
Jurors unanimously refused to commit Thompson, the first jury in the state to take such action since Washington's sexually violent predator law took effect in 1990. Only three other sex offenders facing commitment have been freed, all by judges.
Thompson's second chance was short-lived. Five months ago, he was charged with 14 felonies, including attacking two women in a University District elevator last August and raping a woman after breaking into her Eastlake apartment. He is in jail awaiting trial.
Now jurors from Thompson's civil trial are speaking out for the first time about the difficult decision they made, especially in light of the new charges against him.
"It was very devastating to me -- it will always be," said Kim Gordon, 50, who served on the jury. "I'm just your average mom, a family person, a good person. We all walked in there and did the best we could."
The law has attracted little public debate since Washington became the first state to commit sex offenders. In the last 15 years, 153 felons have been committed to the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island and 91 others have been detained there. Some are still awaiting trial, and some were released before trial.
Fifteen other states have passed similar laws, which so far have withstood legal challenges from civil libertarians who believe it's unconstitutional to imprison people who have served their time.
Jurors in the Thompson case said their task was to apply a civil law that narrowly defines which sex-offenders can be detained -- and that he didn't fit, no matter how much they despised his crimes.
"These guys aren't getting out because people are weak and won't stand up to this," said juror Kathryn Serrano, 28, who broke into tears as she discussed the case. "We are given certain guidelines. It's like a no-win situation."
Jurors also questioned the fairness of the law, saying if the public wants high-risk sex offenders locked up for life, the criminal law should be changed to "one strike and you're out" for specific sex crimes.
"He had served his time and that was it," said juror Anita Veltman, 68, reflecting on her reason for setting Thompson free.
A tough position
Other jurors criticized the state for expecting a jury to predict whether an inmate will commit future crimes when the experts can't agree.
"I think it was ridiculous that we were put in the position of a clinical psychologist," Serrano said. "It was very unfair for them to ask us to decide this."
Convicted in 1985 of sexually assaulting four Seattle women in four months, Thompson met the first requirement for commitment by being charged or convicted of a sex crime.
But clinical psychologists clashed on two other key conditions for commitment: a person must suffer from a mental abnormality or personality disorder and be likely to re-offend if not confined to a secure facility.
Clinical psychologist Amy Phenix took the stand first, saying her examination of Thompson determined that he was a sexual sadist who would likely prey on more victims.
She cited his string of increasingly violent rapes preceding his imprisonment in 1985 as well as his self-confessed history of sexually and physically abusing his stepsisters starting when he was 10 years old. He'd raped them, lit their hair on fire and smothered them with blankets.
Risk factors cited
Other factors that heightened Thompson's risk included his refusal to seek treatment in prison, his inability to sustain any intimate relationships and his relatively young age of 44 upon release, Phenix said.
When he was charged with the 1985 rapes, he confessed he had begun to fear he "might kill someone."
"He was one of the higher-risk sex offenders I've evaluated in my career," said Phenix in a recent phone interview. She has evaluated sex offenders for a decade in California and helped develop that state's 1996 civil commitment law.
She did not expect jurors to release Thompson.
"I've not ever had a case like this," Phenix said. "I was shocked."
Thompson's scores on psychological tests that estimated his risk of re-offending within the next decade predicted he was anywhere from 11 percent to 89 percent likely to commit more crimes, according to an End of Sentence Review written by Department of Corrections clinical psychologist Carla Van Dam. He scored better on tests that left out crimes for which he was never charged, including his juvenile sex assaults.
Becoming a devout Jehovah's Witness while in prison had prompted Thompson to refuse treatment and therefore increased the chance he'd backslide upon release, Van Dam concluded in her report. Van Dam, who did not testify, recommended Thompson be committed.
Inmates who find religion often win the sympathy of jurors who believe they will be less likely to re-offend, Phenix said. But studies have found that religion has no effect on recidivism rates.
None of the jurors who were interviewed acknowledged being influenced by Thompson's conversion.
"I thought that was just exchanging one addiction for another," Serrano said.
Juror Renee Hayes also said she was skeptical of his conversion but suspected some other jurors wanted to believe he'd changed.
"It definitely opened up a big question mark in some people's minds," said Hayes, 54.
Prosecutors should have done a better job of emphasizing that prison conversions are no guarantee of good behavior on the outside, Hayes said.
Jurors also heard from Thompson's victims, including one woman who was attacked in her bed in June 1985 by the knife-wielding rapist.
The rape had lingering effects, even after she moved to California, the victim said in a recent interview. She sought therapy to deal with her fear of being home alone, recurring nightmares and inability to sleep.
The verdict baffled her: "I don't know if I was angry as much as surprised and disappointed," she said.
A spirited defense
Thompson's attorneys mounted a spirited defense -- despite the fact that Thompson tried several times before and during the trial to fire them, according to court records.
Family members and church members begged jurors to give Thompson the opportunity to prove he'd turned his life around.
Thompson embraced the Jehovah's Witness faith while in prison, regularly attending religious meetings and quoting scriptures, said Robert Maulding, a Jehovah's Elder from the Steilacoom congregation who testified at the trial.
"Curtis expressed regret for what he'd done," said Maulding, adding he saw no signs that Thompson would re-offend. "I made as honest an assessment as a human being can."
Clinical psychologist Theodore Donaldson challenged everything other experts had told the jury.
He testified that Thompson was not suffering from a mental disorder, had the ability to control his behavior and didn't pose a high risk.
"I still don't think he had a mental disorder," said Donaldson, in a recent phone interview from California. "He's a big angry guy. He's a criminal." But Donaldson said that didn't mean he fit the commitment criteria.
Donaldson has evaluated 240 sex offenders since he began working for defense attorneys in 1996. Twenty-six of those cases were in Washington state where he has testified at 10 civil commitment trials.
He began working for the defense after being "kicked off" the California Department of Mental Health panel evaluating sex offenders for commitment. "Conceptual disagreements" with state officials after just three months were cited as the reason.
Donaldson said that 90 percent of the time he disagrees with state experts about whether an inmate should be committed.
"There's no science to address the law," Donaldson said. "They win these cases because the juries find these people so objectionable."
Diagnosing mental disorders is still a "very primitive" science and the statistical instruments used to assess the likelihood of re-offending are inaccurate, Donaldson said.
For example, age isn't given sufficient weight in assessing risk, he said. "The older you get, the more the risk goes down," Donaldson said.
While none of the jurors said Donaldson's testimony was a deciding factor, several said he'd raised valid concerns.
A difficult standard
Hayes said the state failed to prove Thompson was at least 51 percent likely to re-offend, the standard for commitment. She also was not convinced that Thompson fit the diagnosis of "sexual sadist."
Serrano also struggled with whether Thompson fit that diagnosis. Experts told jurors sexual sadists "enjoy mutilating" victims and she didn't believe there was enough evidence of that..
"You need to study for years to do clinical diagnosis, yet we were asked to make a decision after two weeks," Serrano said, bursting into tears. "The sad thing is that a rapist is a rapist. Does it matter if he mutilated?"
Thompson's track record in prison, where he'd incurred only minor infractions, swayed some jurors, whose decision had to be unanimous. He was also no longer abusing drugs and alcohol.
"He'd been clean for 18 years," Serrano said. "How does a sexually violent predator act in prison?"
That influenced Gordon as well: "We had to consider his behavior in prison."
But the youngest juror, Paul Beard, 22, said he didn't buy arguments that Thompson had changed.
"If I remember correctly, I was the only one who wanted to find him guilty," Beard said. "We fought over it for a while."
The son of a law-enforcement officer, Beard wasn't impressed that Thompson stayed out of trouble in prison where he had no access to victims and constant supervision. And he worried that Thompson had scored high on some tests that predict who will re-offend.
"I just knew he was going to do it again," Beard said. "I tried to put up a fight."
But gut feelings didn't hold up against other jurors' arguments, so Beard gave in.
"All of us kind of teamed up on him and told him what he had wasn't enough," Serrano recalled.
Prosecutors were caught off guard by the jury's decision -- the first time they'd lost a sex-offender commitment case.
"It was not an outcome we expected," said David Hackett, who runs the sexual predator unit in the King County Prosecutor's Office.
"The evidence in this case didn't look any different than any other."
King County has committed 51 sex offenders since the law went into effect. Two-thirds of those cases were decided by juries. Another two dozen cases are awaiting trial.
Thompson's religious conversion and good behavior in prison were points in his favor, Hackett said.
"People like to believe people change, even if they've done terrible things," Hackett said.
There's a simpler explanation, said Thompson's defense attorney, Anita Paulsen: The jury carefully weighed the evidence to keep him detained and found it lacking.
"I think it's a tribute to them and the whole system," Paulsen said. "Nobody has a crystal ball."
Some of those who went to bat for Thompson are now bitterly disappointed about his new charges.
Maulding, the Jehovah's Elder, said he was disheartened, especially since Thompson's successful challenge of the law had given hope to other McNeil Island inmates. He feels stung that he may have misjudged Thompson so badly.
Jurors too feel haunted that someone else may have been victimized by Thompson.
"I just wish I could apologize and say (to the victims), 'I am so sorry this happened to you,' " Serrano said. "If I could have made a different decision, I would have."
P-I investigative reporter Ruth Teichroeb can be reached at 206-448-8175 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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