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4th Circuit Overturns Dismissal of Adam Walsh Civil Commitment Case

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the dismissal of the Adam Walsh case against Walter Wooden, finding that the application of that Act to the defendant did not violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution. The court also set aside the district court's determination that "Wooden does not suffer from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder," because he no longer suffers from pedophilia. It said that "the record (does not) support the district court's determination that he would not have 'serious difficulty refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.'"

In most appellate court reviews of district court cases, the factual findings of the district judge are given great weight, and as the court noted, "we may not reverse... factual findings 'even though convinced that had (we) been sitting as the trier of fact, [we] would have weighed the evidence differently' as long as the court's 'account of the evidence is plausible in light of the record viewed in its entirety.'" United States v. Anderson, 470 U.S. at 574. "Nonetheless... the district court's account of the evidence in this regard is not plausible."

The record showed that Wooden, a man of limited mental capabilities, had a long record of child molestation, including at least six arrests. In 1984, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for a child molestation offense, paroled in 2000, and revoked in 2001. In 2002, he was ordered to undergo long-term sex-offender treatment and testing.

The government sought to block his release from custody based upon 18 U.S.C.A. Section 4248(a), also known as the Adam Walsh Act. The Act requires that the civil commitment process be limited to prisoners with a volitional impairment, in other words, those "whose mental illness renders them dangerous beyond their control." United States v. Francis, 686 F.3d 265, 275 (4th Cir. July 16, 2012).

As part of the civil commitment process, Wooden was examined by clinical psychologists for both the government and the defense. The government experts testified that Wooden met the criteria under the Act, meeting the diagnostic criteria for pedophilia, a serious mental illness under the Act, and was at a high risk of reoffending.

The defense expert testified that Wooden did not meet the criteria, because he was no longer impulsive and had no volitional impairment, and noted that Wooden had reached the age where reoffending was unlikely. The district court seized on this testimony, finding that proof of a volitional impairment making it difficult to refrain from reoffending is not enough for commitment, but that "a finding of dangerousness is also constitutionally required," and proof is required that he "poses a risk of re-offense that is significant enough to justify a finding that (Wooden) is sexually dangerous and therefore can be preventively detained."

The Appellate Court rejected this reasoning, citing its ruling in United States v. Timms, 664 F.3d 436, 456 (4th Cir. 2012). The court found that this decision required the reversal of the determination "that application of the Act to Wooden violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

The Appeals court then turned to a review of the district court record, explaining that a "careful review of the evidence has left us with the ‘definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.'" United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948). The district court, they said, made errors in reviewing and considering efforts made by government witnesses to establish pedophilia and that these errors were not shielded by the district court finding that the defense experts were more credible. "On remand, the district court shall reconsider (the)... existing record... (its original analysis... and whether Wooden is sexually dangerous...." See: United States v. Wooden, 693 F.3d 440 (4th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal cases

United States v. Wooden

United States v. Francis

United States v. Timms

United States v. Wooden

United States v. Francis

United States v. Timms