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WI Predator-Law Poster Boy Gets Released

On Halloween, 1973, nine-year-old Lisa French disappeared while trick-or-treating in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Gerald Turner, a neighbor and friend of the French family, was ultimately convicted of abducting, raping and murdering the girl. Dubbed the Halloween Killer, Turner languished in the maxi- mum-security Waupun prison until 1992, when he reached his mandatory release date.

Predictably, the news of Turner's release from prison sparked an uproar across the state. Right-wing politicians rode the wave of public outrage for all it was worth, decrying Wisconsin's laws as soft on violent criminals and promising to enact tough-on-crime measures to rectify the problem.

The state legislature ended up enacting a sexual predator law, similar to those in other states, imposing indefinite confinement on offenders deemed sexually dangerous. Local media routinely referred to the legislation as the "Turner Law."

After being confined since 1994 awaiting trial under the new law, Turner's day in court arrived in January. Everyone in the state seemed to assume it was a foregone conclusion that the Halloween Killer would be judged a predator and imprisoned for the remainder of his life.

The jury, however, didn't see it that way. Jurors returned a verdict declaring that Gerald Turner is not a sexually dangerous person. The DOC then had to release Turner on parole, with strict conditions.

The verdict proved a major embarrassment for the tough-on-crime politicians who promoted the predator law as a way to keep the Halloween Killer behind bars. Governor Tommy Thompson has tried to deflect criticism by arguing that the Turner verdict shows Wisconsin needs a law requiring prisoners to serve 100% of their sentences.

Ironically, it was another jury, not any leniency in Wisconsin's criminal laws, that made Gerald Turner eligible for mandatory release in the first place. Prosecutors charged Turner with first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence with no mandatory release. But the jury in Turner's 1975 trial chose to convict him of second-degree murder instead.

101 sex offenders have been confined under Wisconsin's sex predator law, and 62 more are awaiting civil commitment trials. People held under the law are now confined at the Wisconsin Resource Center, a mental-health institution in Oshkosh. The state building commission recently approved $30 million to build a 300-bed institution in Mauston to house predator-law prisoners.

Sources: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Capital Times (Madison, Wis.)

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