You've heard the phrase countless times, from your high school civics teacher to your favorite courtroom dramas on television: innocent until proven guilty. This principle of the United States legal system seems to be one of the few that everyone knows, yet there have been countless attempts to circumvent it in an effort to punish someone for a crime simply because they appear to have done it.
A reopened cold case in Milwaukee is raising important questions about crime and punishment. The case concerns the rape and murder of a 9-year-old Milwaukee girl in 1970. She went missing while running an errand and two hours later, her body was discovered underneath a car. Her killer was never found, but decades later, some of her family members asked Milwaukee investigators to take another look. They did, and in their pursuit of the girl's killer they narrowed in on a suspect: a former next-door neighbor who recently finished a 10-year sentence for the sexual assault of four other girls.
Milwaukee police say that the man confessed to killing and raping the girl in 1970, including details about the case that were never made public. But he later withdrew his confession and because the killing happened so long ago, there is not enough evidence to convict him of homicide. Instead, police and prosecutors are hoping that a statute created to protect the public from criminally violent sex offenders could keep the man in custody indefinitely. He's currently living in a supervised facility in central Wisconsin, but a hearing later this month could ensure a permanent loss of freedom without being convicted of a crime. Chapter 980, which allows Wisconsin to hold some sex offenders beyond their release date if they're considered likely to reoffend, would commit him to a sentence of psychiatric care without an end date.
Laws surrounding involuntary or civil commitment vary greatly from state to state, as do personal opinions over whether these commitments are a violation of civil rights. What should be the deciding factor in any case where someone is presumed to be a danger to others? How can this danger be proved without someone coming to harm? Does this man deserve to be held indefinitely based on suspicion? These are all questions that will come up when the suspect makes his court appearance next month. What do you think?
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Suspect named in 1970 slaying of girl," Annysa Johnson, Nov. 5, 2012
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