The utter cluelessness on display in this Star Tribune article on the $15,000 bail set for Level 3 sex offender Joseph Duncan in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota is both mind-boggling and enraging: “Duncan release raises what-ifs.” After making bail on a charge in Detroit Lakes, Duncan appears to have gone on the rape/murder spree that has been in the national news over the past few weeks.
The chief what-ifs the story raises in my mind are: What if the authorities knew what they are doing? What if Minnesota criminal law treated sex offenses as a function of compulsive behavior? Those aren’t the what-ifs the reporter has in mind, but take a look:
Judge Thomas Schroeder and attorneys in the Becker County case knew that Duncan had served a lengthy prison sentence in Washington state for a sex crime years ago and that he was a registered sex offender.
But they weighed that against the fact that he was a dean’s list student at North Dakota State University, held a steady job and had a clean record since leaving prison in 2000.
Yet, there was no mention in Schroeder’s courtroom that Duncan had been classified as a Level 3 sex offender, considered the most likely to reoffend. Becker County Attorney Joe Evans said his office also did not know before making its bail recommendation last spring that Duncan was sent to prison in Washington state in 1982 because he failed sex offender treatment. That suggests Duncan was not dealing with the problems that led to his violent acts.
Evans said he was unaware of the details of Duncan’s crime: that he raped and tortured a 14-year-old boy at gunpoint when he was just 16.
Just the same, Evans said, knowing that information probably would not have made any difference. (Schroeder referred all questions to the state court administrator’s office.)
Duncan, Evans said, was charged with a crime — sexually touching a child without force — for which the state’s guidelines recommend a non-prison sentence even for someone with Duncan’s record.
The county attorney also noted that his office asked for $25,000 bail and that the judge set bail at $15,000. Duncan posted $15,000 cash bail, which means that he had the money to get a much higher bail bond if the judge had set a higher amount to compel him to make his next court appearance.
And to prosecutors, Duncan appeared to have “made a successful adjustment” to life outside prison, Evans said.
Minnesota’s local law enforcement authorities have ready access to relatively up-to-date, basic data about a defendant’s past. Still, judges and attorneys acknowledge they don’t always have detailed information at the time bail is set for a new charge.
Getting detailed information about prior convictions in other states is more problematic, prosecutors say.
But at least three ominous signs in Duncan’s past cited by several prosecutors and law professors were known to attorneys in Duncan’s Becker County case. First, he was a rapist who served more than 15 years in a Washington prison. And second, he used a gun to commit the assault.
“If somebody spends that much time in prison, you don’t need to know much else. Just the length of time tells you it was a serious offense,” said Barry Feld, a University of Minnesota law professor.
I was Professor Feld’s student in criminal procedure at the University of Minnesota Law School. He is, it should be noted, an ACLU-style liberal on issues of criminal justice.
UPDATE: Bill O’Reilly has had his eye on the Duncan story over the past week. O’Reilly Factor producer Ron Mitchell advises that they plan to do a big segment on the bail aspect of the story tonight. Reader Jim Haney writes:
The Becker County attorney, Joe Evans , is being colored in the media in the wrong light. He is the antithesis of the liberal prosecutor. No one has been a stronger opponent to child molestors, having successfully prosecuted many of them. He and his kids and wife have been threatened many, many times…Evans also takes his ration of [grief] like a man; O Reilly and others have all been trying to get him to come on TV and trash the judge in the case; he has so far refused. His assistant was the one who handled the case in Judge Schroeder’s court, Evans has taken all the resulting flak upon himself. He is a great county attorney, slow talking country lawyer in the Atticus Finch mold. Ironic and unfortunate that Evans of all prosecutors should have this happen on his watch.