When 17-year-old Justin Fawcett admitted to having consensual sex with a 14-year-old student at the same high school he attended in West Bloomfield, Michigan, he probably never thought that that youthful dalliance would lead to his death, but it did.
Justin and three other teens who separately had sex with the girl were prosecuted for felony criminal sexual conduct. They were allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of seduction, and told they would not be listed on the state’s sex offender registry. However, a year after the plea deal, Justin was informed by his probation officer that he was going to be included on the registry after all.
Hounded by the public shame that he would be listed on the state’s sex offender registry website for more than two decades, Justin despaired of ever having a normal life. Who would hire, or date, a registered sex offender? Despite his father’s assurances that the registration law would eventually be changed, Justin saw no future ... no life for himself. Which led him to commit suicide when he was 20.
Seven years after Justin’s parents found his body in his bedroom, dead from an overdose, they received a letter addressed to Justin from Michigan’s Sex Offender and Registry Enforcement Unit. The letter indicated that his name would be excluded from the public part of the registry and he might be eligible to have it removed altogether.
One might view this as a typical bureaucratic error except for the fact that Justin’s parents, David and Gayle Fawcett, had become activists for reform of the state’s sex offender registry statute following Justin’s death, which became a focal point of their successful efforts to change the law. David Fawcett testified before the state legislature and his family’s tragedy was the force that pushed through much-needed reforms.
When asked why Justin’s name remained on the sex offender registry seven years after his death, state police spokeswoman Shanon Banner said that names are not removed unless a family member sends the registry enforcement unit a death certificate. She speculated that the Fawcetts had not done so. However, this puts the responsibility for keeping the registry current in the hands of citizens who have no obligation to take such action. Which is a questionable practice, as it is the responsibility of the state police to maintain the accuracy of the registry, not families of deceased sex offenders.
Including the names of people who are no longer living is not the only problem with Michigan’s sex offender registry. The amendments to the state’s sex offender registration law, enacted on July 1, 2011, removed Justin’s name and the names of certain other offenders from the registry website, but also required each registered sex offender (RSO) to pro-vide additional information. Such newly-required information included the phone numbers for any phones regularly used by the RSO, the RSO’s passport or immigration document numbers and a copy of any business or professional licenses held by the RSO.
The amendments also required RSOs to notify police within three days of any changes related to their name, address or employment; vehicle ownership or long-term use; school enrollment status; and email addresses and online identity, or if they intended to reside outside their homes for more than seven days. Failure to comply could result in arrest and imprisonment.
Each RSO in the registry, both living and dead, was sent a letter explaining the new requirements and informing them they had until July 15, 2011 to provide the newly-required information. The overwhelming majority of RSOs complied. However, police departments were not prepared for the flood of registered sex offenders seeking to update their registry details.
Meanwhile, the enforcement unit decided to flag every RSO in the state as “non-compliant” on the registry until their information was updated. This led to a flood of complaints from RSOs who had submitted their updated information in a timely manner, yet were nonetheless flagged as being “non-compliant” due to delays in having the information processed by law enforcement officials.
“What’s an employer supposed to think when he finds that the state police have publicly identified one of his workers as a non-compliant sex offender?” asked Oakland County attorney Cheryl Carpenter, after receiving phone calls from over a dozen RSOs who were concerned about the erroneous registry entries.
“We did underestimate the volume of information we had to process,” Banner acknowledged. “We underestimated how well [RSOs] were going to carry out their new duties.”
In other words, after state officials sent RSOs a letter threatening to put them in prison if they didn’t provide updated information, they were surprised when most RSOs complied with that demand.
Still, Banner said it was good that errors – including deceased people listed in the sex offender registry – came to light as a result of the amendments to the registration law.
Also, after receiving numerous complaints, the “non-compliant” status of RSOs whose updated information had not yet been processed was changed to “compliant.”
“Obviously, the registry is only useful if the information listed there is accurate,” Banner stated. “If anything positive comes of this, it is that this process is cleaning up a number of problems.” [See related article in the May 2012 issue of PLN, “Report Deconstructs Urban Legend of 100,000 Missing Sex Offenders”].
That may be so, but the clean-up is temporary and long overdue, and comes at a steep price – Justin Fawcett’s needless suicide, which was the impetus for the changes to the state’s sex offender registration law.
Sources: Detroit Free Press, www.abcnews.go.com
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login