Sex Offender Registries: Putting Lives At Risk?

The brutal slayings of two convicted sex offenders from Maine have re-ignited national debate on whether online sex offender registries should provide extensive personal information on their registrants.

Twenty-year-old Stephen Marshall of Nova Scotia, Canada, killed himself aboard a Boston-bound bus after allegedly murdering two convicted sex offenders in Maine, whom he'd found on the state's sex offender Web site.

One of the victims, 24-year-old William Elliott, was convicted four years ago of having sex with a girlfriend who was only days away from her 16th birthday. Elliott served four months in jail.

Marshall, who had no previous criminal record, had earlier gone online and obtained personal information on both Elliott and Joseph L. Gray, 57, another convicted sex offender, whom Marshall is also suspected of murdering earlier that day.

Investigators also revealed that Marshall obtained the addresses and other information of 34 people from Maine's online sex offender registry.

Now some are asking, what about the privacy rights of sex offenders? Do state Web sites provide too much information and even promote vigilante violence?

Without the registry, "he'd still be alive today," Shirley Turner, Elliott's mother, told The Boston Globe. "He didn't say anything; he just shot him in cold blood," she said.

She described her son as a "warm, loving young man" who suffered from disabilities and "was doing so good."

The state of Maine makes photos, names, addresses, ages and criminal histories of about 2,200 registered sex offenders available online.

The online sex registry in Maine was temporarily taken down after it got word of the deaths, but it has since been re-established.

Outrage Across State Lines

The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has argued that its online state registry should be removed in light of legislation the state Senate recently approved that would would make it easier to post information on sex offenders by expanding the kind of offenses that would require registration. "This is a stark reminder that there's no evidence that online sex offender registries increase public safety. In fact, they might just do the opposite," said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont ACLU.

"They should not be making any changes to the online registry unless they can determine that, indeed, the registry increases public safety. We think they never should have created it. They should just pull it immediately."

Still, even while the horrific Maine murders have raised new questions about the safety of the offenders, state authorities continue to defend the public's right to know about their neighbors' criminal activity.

"Anyone in this day and age can log on and find the addresses of anyone in the world," said Steve McCausland, with the Maine Department of Public Safety. "It doesn't have to be a sex register; it could be any of the search engines that are out in the world, including the telephone book."

"Our view is that this is an isolated incident and the value of the registry to parents and communities outweighs the impact of one isolated incident," said Jason Gibbs, spokesman for Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas.

Although there has been no definitive link between the Web site and the murders, investigators have confirmed that Marshall had been on the state's sex offender Web site because the site requires users to register. In this case, Marshall registered with his real name and address, allowing police to see which profiles he had viewed.

However, Web site users could theoretically use a fake name and address.

Following Federal Law

While federal law requires each state to work within the requirements of community notification, some states have gone beyond the obligation by posting the personal information of sex offenders online.

"It's easier to meet the requirements by providing information on the Web site," said Charles Onley, research associate for the Center for Sex Offender Management, an office of the Department of Justice. "But there is no [federal] requirement of Internet access."

The states' Web sites are not always comprehensive. It is within the individual state's jurisdiction to determine which sex offenders pose a higher risk to the community, and it can make their information more accessible than others'.

Onley said some states, like Pennsylvania, have been more conservative about the information they provide the public. Other states, like Florida, have been more liberal in their approach.

"There has been a drift toward full disclosure [of personal information]. The thought was to go out and inform the community," said Onley, who explained that there was a lot of public hostility toward sex offenders when federal law required that their whereabouts be made available to the public.

"The thing is, you have the mandate and the public wants the information. The information might be less valuable [without addresses]," said Onley. "The public would want addresses."

All states do not require that sex offenders' addresses be made public, though many do provide that kind of detail.

The National Sex Offender Registry provides online information on sex offenders in each state except Oregon and South Dakota.

"It's not just that it is online, [anybody] could have gone down to the sheriffs office to get the information," said Onley.

Not the First Case

While incidents of vigilante violence against sex offenders are rare, this week's case is not the first.

In September Michael A. Mullen of Bellingham, Wash., was charged with the murders of two convicted sex offenders after he admitted to police that he wanted to kill them after he saw the information listed on the state's online sex offender Web site. He sits in jail awaiting trial.

In a 2004 case, the state of New Hampshire sent 57-year-old Lawrence Trant to jail for 10 to 30 years after he pleaded guilty to charges of attempted murder on two convicted sex offenders whose names and addresses he'd located on the state's sex offender registry.

In an interview with The Boston Globe, Trant said, "I don't want people to steal the souls of little kids. I'm doing 30 years for something I think is morally justified."

Maine investigators have yet to examine a laptop computer Marshall carried with him on the bus before he committed suicide.

Investigators hope it can explain why Marshall was apparently driven to kill the two men from Maine.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.