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.

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