Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Case Of Intellectually Disabled Teen Falsely Accused of Sex Offense Reveals Registry Flaws

Before Edgar Coker was exonerated in a rape case, he underwent therapy meant to prevent sexual reoffenses. Thousands of kids involved in sexual offenses are forced into therapies like “relapse prevention” that experts say are ineffective.

Edgar Coker with his parents at the University of Virginia School of Law in 2014.
University of Virginia School of Law

Case Of Intellectually Disabled Teen Falsely Accused of Sex Offense Reveals Registry Flaws

Before Edgar Coker was exonerated in a rape case, he underwent therapy meant to prevent sexual reoffenses. Thousands of kids involved in sexual offenses are forced into therapies like “relapse prevention” that experts say are ineffective.

In 2007, when he was 15, Edgar Coker pleaded guilty to raping a friend. Though Coker maintained his innocence and said he had only consensual sex with the accuser, a 14-year-old girl with a mental disability, Coker’s court appointed attorney advised him to enter the guilty plea in order to avoid being charged as an adult and he was sentenced to serve over a year in the Hanover Juvenile Correctional Facility in Virginia.

With an IQ of 78, Coker himself was deemed borderline intellectually disabled and, two months after he was sentenced, the girl recanted. She said she told the police she was raped when her mother caught her “pulling up her pants” at the family home after having sex with him.

Coker was eventually released and a circuit court in Stafford County vacated his charges. But despite his innocence, Coker underwent therapy at Hanover to prevent him from sexually reoffending, which included admitting guilt in the rape case, according to Jeree Thomas, who performed legal research for Coker’s habeas petition that led to his exoneration in 2014.

“Treatment is helpful, but for [kids] who are in sex offender treatment, they have to show remorse,” Thomas, now a policy director at the Campaign for Youth Justice, told The Appeal. “There’s a whole process. In Coker’s case, where he and the young woman were about the same age and intellectual capacity, they told him he needed to say he raped her.”

That kind of treatment, experts say, is ineffective.

Since 2006, when a federal law was enacted that required children convicted (not just charged) of aggravated sexual offenses who are 14 and older to be included on the national sex offender public registry, nearly 200,000 young people have been placed on the registry. African-Americans like Coker are disproportionately represented on the registry; the sex offender registration rate for black people is twice that of whites.

Many young people on the registry have had to undergo psychotherapy, which includes sessions of “relapse prevention”—a type of treatment used for people with substance use disorder—while attending inpatient or detention centers. But relapse prevention has never been proved effective in treating young people who commit sexual offenses. Moreover, studies show that only 5 to 14 percent of juveniles who commit sexual offenses are likely reoffend.

The low recidivism rate has more to do with the way children’s brains develop throughout their teens, according to juvenile justice experts.

“Kids grow up, they enter puberty and they become very sexually curious,” said David Prescott, clinical services development director for the Becket Family of Services, an alliance of nonprofit agencies that studies youth sexual behaviors. “Also, adolescents challenge authority and break rules. So, when you get all of those things in that stage of life, especially with kids less supervised, we shouldn’t be surprised when they do stupid stuff.”

Relapse prevention treatment is under the umbrella of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, and focuses on self-regulating behavior if individuals find themselves in a situation where they might reoffend.

The therapy  works from a substance use disorder treatment model where, for example, drug users who feel compelled to use are taught to evaluate their situation and walk away. But substance use disorder is far different than a sexual impulse, said Pamela Yates, a Canadian forensic psychology researcher for Cabot Consulting and Research Services.

“The addiction model never fit well,” Yates said. “Sexual behavior is biologically ingrained in individuals. Having a goal of abstaining for individuals is unrealistic and unlikely to be achieved.”

In Virginia, where Coker was sentenced, a state report recommended relapse prevention along with empathy development as options for treatment of youth sex offenders, citing a 2008 study that found that over over 80 percent of mental health professionals supported the treatment. But the report also acknowledged, “given the lack of studies, these components are not designated as evidence based.”

A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice said the state uses relapse prevention as one treatment option, adding that its program “utilizes an individualized, holistic, cognitive behavioral and strengths-based approach, which encompasses individual, group and family therapies.”

The number of juvenile detention or correctional facilities that use relapse prevention methods is unclear, but a 2009 study—the most recent year available—found that more than 50 percent of jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada continue to use it for juvenile sex offenders. In some jurisdictions, even more archaic methods are used.

“Some [kids] go into older-school models, where they have kids masturbate to images to the point of pain,” said Paul Shawler with the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth. Indeed, one treatment model instructed kids to masturbate to an illicit image and then sniff ammonia until their “state of sexual arousal is completely removed.”

There is no federal oversight of treatment for young people who commit sex offenses, so states set the standards. This means that treatment varies from the progressive (multisystemic therapy, or MST, in which young people are encouraged to engage with their communities and families) to non-evidence based (using drugs that reduce arousal).

“People are trying the best with the tools they have,” Shawler said. “But what we do know is the more restrictive [of sexual behavior] we are in our treatments, the more it becomes highly problematic.”

Prescott of Becket Family of Service advocates the Good Lives Model, which uses a combination of MST and CBT that addresses underlying problems—such as feeling emotionally disconnected from peers—that might have turned into an inappropriate touch.

But Yates, the forensic psychologist, says that the Good Lives Model and other progressive treatment models are not widely used. As a result, non-evidence based science that hasn’t been proved effective in reducing recidivism is informing treatment for sex offenders in prisons and detention centers. “Many of these interventions in place just aren’t research-based,” Yates said. “Those are resources that could be redirected into other places” such as MST treatment. “As a result, now, there are practices that actually work against public safety.”

Correction: In a previous version of this story, Pamela Yates was identified as a forensic psychologist and researcher. Because Yates is a non-practicing psychologist, her correct title is forensic psychology researcher.

On flipping, Trump is right for the wrong reasons

On flipping, Trump is right for the wrong reasons

What you’ll read today 

  • Spotlight: On flipping, Trump is right for the wrong reasons

  • California could soon end money bail, but at what cost?

  • Prosecutor pursues murder charge for woman who defended herself from abuser

  • San Francisco will forgive and waive court fees

  • Florida judge says setting high bail to detain people is unconstitutional

  • Economists say guns, not crack, to blame for violence of the ’80s and ’90s

  • Relatives of Mollie TIbbetts call for conservatives to stop using her death for political gain

In the Spotlight

On flipping, Trump is right for the wrong reasons

“I know all about flipping,” President Trump told “Fox & Friends.” “For 30, 40 years I’ve been watching flippers. Everything’s wonderful and then they get 10 years in jail and they—they flip on whoever the next highest one is, or as high as you can go.” That tool “almost ought to be outlawed. It’s not fair,” Trump said. It creates an incentive to “say bad things about somebody … just make up lies.” [Associated Press / MPR News]

Trump was referring to Michael Cohen’s decision to take a plea deal on fraud charges and admit to prosecutors that he paid off two women to stay quiet about sexual affairs they claimed to have had with Trump. “If somebody defrauded a bank and he’s going to get 10 years in jail or 20 years in jail, but if you can say something bad about Donald Trump and you’ll go down to two years or three years, which is the deal he made,” Trump said, “in all fairness to him, most people are going to do that.” Trump also tweeted that the White House counsel Donald McGahn, would never sell out his boss like a “John Dean type ‘RAT.’” Mr. Dean, whose testimony as White House counsel about Watergate helped bring down President Richard Nixon, responded by tweeting that Trump “thinks, acts and sounds like a mob boss.” [Mark Landler / New York Times]

It came out this week, too, that federal prosecutors have reached an immunity deal with the tabloid executive David J. Pecker, a key witness in their investigation into payments to the two women who said they had affairs with Trump. Pecker is the chairman of American Media Inc., the nation’s biggest tabloid news publisher, which was involved in the payments that prosecutors say were illegal campaign contributions. Mr. Pecker’s cooperation is, according to the New York Times, “another potential blow to the president from a former loyalist.” It is still not clear whether prosecutors gave Pecker immunity for his role in the campaign contributions, or agreed not to prosecute him in exchange for information. It is possible that Pecker could still face scrutiny. [Jim Rutenberg, Rebecca R. Ruiz, and Ben Protess / New York Times]

When Rudy Giuliani was working as a United States attorney, his office was labeled the “House of Pancakes” for the number of suspects who “flipped” to try to reduce their prison sentences. The practice is an integral part of prosecutions, especially in the federal system. Preet Bharara, who was the U.S. attorney for the same office until Trump fired him, underscored how important the practice is in a tweet:

Writing for the Washington Post, former federal prosecutor Ken White called Trump the “most recent convert to the criminal defense cause” on account of his newfound realization that flipping can lead to injustice. “Trump’s right, but for the wrong reasons,” he wrote. “America’s criminal justice system routinely coerces defendants to cooperate and incentivizes them to lie to please prosecutors. But most victims aren’t presidential confidants accused of bank fraud. The vast majority of people who confront the choice between cooperation and a longer sentence are poor and uneducated.” White points the finger at the underfunding of indigent defense and the money bail system, both of which make flipping more coercive. Unlike Cohen, most cooperators don’t know the defendant well, and are frequently jailhouse snitches notorious for fabrications. But there are “no reliable methods in place to track repeat cooperators or to ensure that evidence undermining their credibility is turned over to the defense, and very few prosecutors face consequences for withholding information that impeaches their witnesses.” [Ken White / Washington Post]

“If we want fairness for both the cooperating defendants and the people they implicate—if we want faith in the results—we need serious reform,” White writes. We have to think about how poverty drives cooperation and how the system fails to police itself, he added. We should also “examine the vast power we’ve given prosecutors, who through unreviewable and usually opaque charging decisions can have even more authority than judges over a defendant’s sentence. Federal prosecutors could flip Cohen because they had broad discretion to charge him with dozens of crimes or none; they alone decided how sweet a deal to offer and how ugly the alternative was.” Most difficult, he said, we must question our culture. “Our vision of the criminal justice system is based not on reality, but on Nixonian rhetoric and Dick Wolf’s endlessly televised stories of heroic law enforcers fighting against shifty defense lawyers and sociopathic defendants,” he writes. “In short, flipping works because the culture tells us to trust prosecutors, police and even cooperators uncritically. Only a civic culture of healthy skepticism of prosecutors’ claims—a genuine appreciation for the concept of reasonable doubt—can change that.”  [Ken White / Washington Post]

Stories From The Appeal

California Assembly Member Rob Bonta, an Alameda Democrat,
discussed Senate Bill 10 at a recent press conference. 

California Could Soon End Money Bail, But at What Cost? The passage of Senate Bill 10 would decimate the bail industry, but many advocates say it falls short of true reform. [Max Rivlin-Nadler]

Prosecutor Pursues Murder Charge for Woman Who Defended Herself From Abuser. Jacqueline Dixon shot her husband to death in Alabama—a “Stand Your Ground” state—after she said he charged at her. He had a history of domestic violence. [William C. Anderson]

Stories From Around the Country

San Francisco will forgive and waive court fees: Under a new order by the San Francisco Superior Court, the county will waive and forgive about $32 million in court fees from about 21,000 people. San Francisco was the first county in the country to waive such fees. “We should be actively helping people to get their lives back on track after they have paid their debt to society,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement. “Garnishing the wages of people facing the challenging task of securing employment and housing can make that impossible.” The fees were intended to cover the costs of criminal justice programs but a government inquiry found that more than 80 percent of the bills went unpaid, so the city did not benefit significantly. The city estimates it will lose about $1 million annually. [Trisha Thadani / San Francisco Chronicle]

Florida judge says setting high bail to detain people is unconstitutional: A North Florida federal judge said the practice in Leon County of setting an unaffordable bail as a way to keep defendants in jail is unconstitutional. “It seems that the state is operating an unconstitutional system in Leon County,” U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said at the federal courthouse in Tallahassee. “If there is no legitimate basis to detain the person, then setting up unaffordable bail is unconstitutional. Unaffordable bail is detention by another name.” These judges and prosecutors were doing what has historically been done, the judge added. Hinkle did not make a ruling on the case but instead asked an ACLU attorney to determine by October how many defendants in the Leon County Detention Center remain there because they can’t pay bail and could qualify to be included in the class-action lawsuit. [Karl Etters / Tallahassee Democrat]

Economists say guns, not crack, to blame for violence of the ’80s and ’90s: Two new academic papers question the theory that crack cocaine caused the violent crime wave of the 1980s and early 1990s. The drug theory posits that dealers used violence to defend their businesses, and users committed crimes to feed their addictions. But the economists behind the new papers say that this can’t fully explain why the spike in crack use was so deadly, or why murders fell in the mid-’90s. “Instead, they argue, a boom in handgun production and possession gave the crack years their fatal character—until new restrictions on firearms reversed the trendlines,” according to The Trace. “What’s striking about the gun market is you get these surges in production,” said economist Geoffrey Williams. “The production booms were followed by surges in killings.” [Alex Yablon / The Trace]

Relatives of Mollie TIbbetts call for conservatives to stop using her death for political gain: Samantha Lucas, the second cousin of slain Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, said that her cousin would not have wanted her death to be used as “fuel against undocumented immigrants.” Cristhian Rivera, whom authorities have claimed is undocumented, was arrested and charged with murder this week. His lawyer has disputed the claim that he is undocumented. Shortly after the arrest, President Trump called Rivera an “illegal alien.” In response to a tweet from conservative Candace Owens, Lucas replied: “Hey, I’m a member of Mollie’s family and we are not so f–king small-minded that we generalize a whole population based on some bad individuals.” Billie Jo Calderwood, Tibbetts’s aunt, also spoke out: “I don’t want Mollie’s memory to get lost amongst politics,” she told CNN. [Aris Folley / The Hill]

Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

More in Explainers

Doxxed By Berkeley Police

Critics say the Berkeley Police Department’s unusual practice of posting anti-fascist protesters’ mugshots on Twitter endangers activists and violates free speech rights.

Students hold a protest on a walkway over the entrance to right-wing journalist Ben Shapiro's speaking event in 2017.
Scott Morris

Doxxed By Berkeley Police

Critics say the Berkeley Police Department’s unusual practice of posting anti-fascist protesters’ mugshots on Twitter endangers activists and violates free speech rights.

On Aug. 5, far-right activists held a “No to Marxism” rally in Berkeley, California, as part of a national commemoration of the anniversary of a deadly white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia. The small rally was besieged by counterprotesters. As had usually been the case during such rallies, the Berkeley Police Department made arrests. But the department took an extra step that was unusual: It posted protesters’ names and booking photos on Twitter.

Three days later, the department removed the tweets. But each name and photo had already been widely shared, including on conservative news outlets and among right-wing social media users. “Let’s make them famous,” one Republican strategist instructed his thousands of followers.

While the department has sporadically released booking photos of arrestees via Twitter, it has never released them so quickly and methodically as during protests, leading some attorneys to argue that the targeting of protesters could violate their First Amendment rights. Activists have raised concerns that by broadcasting their identity, Berkeley police have put anti-fascist protesters in danger.

This social media practice appears to be highly unusual. A review of the Twitter accounts of law enforcement agencies in the 50 largest cities over the last year turned up few examples of protesters’ booking photos. Police in St. Louis posted photos of protesters arrested during a demonstration against a police shooting last September, but deleted the tweet after getting hundreds of negative responses. The Portland Police Department has posted booking photos of protesters, but also routinely posts booking photos for other offenses, unlike Berkeley. The Oakland Police Department has at times provided protesters’ booking photos with press releases, but typically waits until after prosecutors have filed charges.

Berkeley police started using the tactic last year after a series of confrontations between far-right activists and counterprotesters. The department tweeted the names and photos of 15 protesters arrested at two demonstrations last September. The grounds for those arrests have been called into question as none of those protesters were ever convicted of a crime, according to court records.

“Last year, anti-fascist arrestees and one of their defense lawyers received death threats and neo-Nazis showed up at court and were waiting for arrestees outside the jail,” said Rachel Lederman, an attorney with the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “Even the assistant district attorney was harassed. Berkeley is well aware of the danger in posting this information.”

Lederman said that the National Lawyers Guild has found that nearly everyone arrested at the protests last year and everyone arrested this year were anti-fascist protesters. Five anti-fascist protesters arrested in March 2017 were tried for assault but found not guilty. Meanwhile, Nathan Damigo of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa was captured on video punching a woman in the face in April 2017 but was never arrested or charged.

Berkeley Police Twitter account

The department has disputed that ideology has played any role in the arrests. It said in a statement that arrests are “based on people breaking the law, not on viewpoint and expression of speech.”

Berkeley first became the target for a series of rallies and events by far-right activists in February 2017, when a planned speaking engagement at University of California, Berkeley by then Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos was disrupted by large crowds of counterprotesters. Black-clad activists attacked the campus venue, setting a fire and breaking windows. At rallies in March and April, right-wing activists arrived armed and ready to fight. There were brawls at each event, and dozens of people were arrested.

That September, UC Berkeley students planned more appearances by far-right speakers. About 1,000 people protested outside a speech by Ben Shapiro, another former Breitbart editor, and nine people were arrested. Yiannopoulos then announced a week of speeches by well-known conservatives, including Steve Bannon and Ann Coulter, but the event fizzled into only a short speech by Yiannopoulos in a public square on campus. A large group of demonstrators then marched through city streets and 11 people were arrested.

Berkeley police tweeted the names, booking photos, and charges for a total of 15 protesters from the two September 2017 events. The charges identified in the tweets included carrying a banned weapon, battery on a police officer, disturbing the peace, and resisting arrest. But only four of those people were ever charged by the Alameda County district attorney’s office and all of their cases were dismissed in court.

At the Aug. 5 rally, police protected a small group of right-wing activists who gathered in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. Unable to access the park, anti-fascist protesters marched through the streets, smashing the windows of parked city vehicles and at a U.S. Marine recruiting center. Police said protesters threw fireworks at officers and officers deployed smoke grenades and rubber bullets.

As the demonstration went on, police announced a steady stream of arrests via Twitter, eventually posting 15 booking photos. The department later said it had arrested 20 people.

Berkeley police spokesperson Officer Byron White provided a written statement from the police defending the release of photos on Twitter, saying it was legal and constitutional. “This is done not in an effort to shame, or to chill freedom of speech, but to deny lawbreakers anonymity, and to deter those who in the future may be considering bringing weapons into our community, in order to commit acts of violence,” the department said.

The charges listed in the department’s tweets were vague, including for carrying a “banned weapon” or “working with others to commit a crime.” White would not clarify what weapons the protesters were accused of carrying or what crime they were allegedly conspiring to commit. White also would not answer questions about why Berkeley police do not typically announce arrests via social media except at protests, why no one whose arrest was publicized on social media last year was convicted or why the tweets were removed.

None of the arrestees identified from the Aug. 5 demonstration have been charged. Lederman said that many of the “banned weapons” were common items associated with protests such as flagpoles or bandanas. Since last year, the department has issued a long list of banned items before protests, including masks, which Lederman said the National Lawyers Guild has warned the Berkeley city attorney’s office is unconstitutional. It appears that those arrested are not accused of the most serious acts of vandalism: While one protester was arrested for alleged vandalism, Berkeley police issued a press release on Aug. 9 seeking help identifying the protesters who smashed city vehicles and the Marine recruiting center.

Under California law, an arrestee’s name and booking photo is considered public information. But the rapid release of this information via social media is unusual for Berkeley police. The department typically does not release the names or booking photos of suspects so quickly after an arrest, even for shootings and homicides. For example, an official press release issued in June about the arrest of a shooting suspect neither named the suspect nor provided a booking photo.

The Berkeley Police Department has struggled with its response to protests in recent years. The National Lawyers Guild sued the city after a Black Lives Matter protest in 2014, when police used batons and tear gas on peaceful demonstrators and journalists. The city settled the suit last year and the department promised to change its use of force policy. But those reforms have been moving slowly and the department was sued again last month for officers’ use of force during a protest at a June 2017 City Council meeting.

Not everyone has been critical of the Berkeley police response to the protests, however.

“The police have been great,” right-wing organizer Amber Cummings told reporter Ford Fischer on Aug. 5. “They’ve been handling things and keeping us separated. Police have done a great job here.”

More in Podcasts