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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.

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.”

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Cannabis activists or ‘dangerous criminals’? Upcoming trials test limits of legalization in Alaska

In these cases, the state is moving to punish people who say they were charged before regulations were clear.

Charlo Greene defends herself in court.
Illustration by Anagraph. Video still via Anchorage Daily News.

Cannabis activists or ‘dangerous criminals’? Upcoming trials test limits of legalization in Alaska

In these cases, the state is moving to punish people who say they were charged before regulations were clear.

In September 2014, reporter Charlo Greene quit a local Alaska news station on air during a report on marijuana and revealed she was the owner of Alaska Cannabis Club and planned to devote her time to the fight to legalize recreational marijuana.

She and her fellow activists succeeded two months later when voters approved a ballot measure doing just that. But that didn’t stop police from pursuing her. In October 2015, she was charged (under her legal name, Charlene Egbe) with 14 marijuana-related offenses, carrying up to 54 years in prison, though Alaska’s sentencing guidelines recommend a maximum of 25 years for first-time offenders like Greene. Her trial is set to begin on Oct. 15.

Regulations governing marijuana sales were not yet put into place when Greene was charged. It wasn’t until May 2015, months after legalization, that a Marijuana Control Board was created to preside over development and enforcement of marijuana laws. But advocates say prosecutors violated the spirit of the law by going after Greene and other cannabis entrepreneurs in the early months of legalization.

Rocky Burns and Larry Stamper, owners of Discreet Deliveries, were charged with 10 felonies in 2015 after law enforcement officials made seven undercover purchases of marijuana through the service from January to August. That same year, Michael Crites, owner of Absolute Chronic Delivery Company, was charged with six felonies after law enforcement made five undercover purchases between May and August.

“While these defendants did apparently move to implement a regulated marijuana system in Alaska a few months prior to the official system becoming active, it seems needlessly harsh to ignore recent changes … and to treat these offenders like dangerous criminals with the threat of a serious jail term,” Keith Stroup, an attorney who founded NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) in 1970 and currently serves as legal counsel to the organization, told The Appeal in an email. “If marijuana is safe enough to be legalized in Alaska and eight other states (and it certainly is), then there is no justification for continuing to treat those who got a little ahead of the official system as if they are dangerous criminals.”

Greene’s bust

On April 20, 2014, Greene founded the Alaska Cannabis Club, which advocated marijuana legalization and eventually allowed individuals to purchase memberships to join a private community where they could connect and share cannabis as the state of Alaska developed regulations for retail marijuana operations.

From March to August 2015, according to court records, Alaskan law enforcement targeted the club with six undercover purchases and two raids. Despite not being involved in any of the alleged purchases, Greene was solely charged because the club was registered under her name. Erika McConnell, director of Alaska’s Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office, declined to discuss the case. “AMCO does not comment on pending litigation,” she wrote in an email.

The charges against Greene include 10 counts of fourth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance and four counts of misconduct involving a controlled substance in the fifth degree, according to the indictment. Greene explained that plea negotiations fell through with the Alaska attorney general’s office, because she now lives in California and did not want to move back to Alaska to serve probation and risk five years in prison for any violations.

A marijuana plant is grown in window sill of a Yupik family in Newtok, Alaska.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Greene thinks she has been unfairly targeted. “A lot of people believe my prosecution is political in nature and I think the same,” she told The Appeal. “I also think it’s driven by everything marijuana prohibition was built upon in the first place, which is racism.”

According to a 2018 report by the Drug Policy Alliance, marijuana arrest rates in Alaska dropped significantly after sales were legalized in 2016, two years after the ballot measure passed, but racial disparities have persisted.

According to the Alaska Department of Public Safety’s 2017 Uniform Crime Report, the marijuana arrest rate of Black people was roughly double that of white people in 2017, and the arrest rate among American Indian/Alaskan Native people was even higher.

The report points out that these racial disparities are common in states where marijuana is now legal. “The communities most harmed by marijuana criminalization have struggled to overcome the many barriers to participation in the legal industry,” the report states, an industry projected to reach $50 billion in annual revenue by 2026. Though marijuana usage is proportionate among Blacks and white people, Black people are about four more times likely to be arrested for a marijuana-related offense than white people in America.

Evolving rules

Despite the racial disparities in arrests, white cannabis entrepreneurs are not immune from prosecution. Larry Stamper and Rocky Burns are also facing prison time, despite being open about their plans, explains Stamper’s lawyer, Jana Weltzin. “When Stamper and his alleged partner Rocky Burns allegedly started this business venture delivering marijuana, Burns articulated this business model to various government and police entities,” Weltzin said. “Nobody responded to them until the search warrants and wiretaps started.” The Anchorage Police Department and Alaska’s Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office declined to comment on whether Burns contacted them.

Michael Crites of Absolute Chronic Delivery Company also tried to follow the rules. “We waited until February 24, 2015, a 90-day marker after the amendment was passed, to open our doors,” Crites told The Appeal. The company provides free marijuana to individuals who need it for medical purposes. “The people who can afford marijuana pay for people who are critically ill to get it for free,” he explained. He estimated that roughly 80 percent of the deliveries his company makes are to people who are physically unable to leave their homes.

Crites has continued to run the marijuana company and make deliveries despite the litigation and his own failing health. “My health is really diminishing,” he said. “I have a stomach tube sticking out of me right now. My stomach doesn’t digest or absorb food properly.” He noted the stress from his court battles has contributed to his illness.

Michael Crites relies on a feeding tube due to stomach ailments.
Courtesy of Michael Crites

Crites, Burns, and Stamper were also each charged with an unclassified felony for allegedly running a criminal enterprise. That charge carries a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 99 years in prison. Crites’s trial is scheduled to begin on Sept. 10, and Stamper and Burns’s trials start on Sept. 17, according to the Alaska attorney general’s office.

As the cases are still pending before the courts, we do not discuss the cases outside of the court filings,” Cori Mills, assistant attorney general of Alaska, said in an email. “As a general matter, the State of Alaska pursues these cases to halt and deter criminal activity. In the area of unlawful business activities, curbing criminal activity recognizes and benefits the legitimate taxpaying businesses who are following the law.”

Greene doesn’t see it that way. “I created a private organization for patients, put in the work to legalize and then created a safe space for our private members to connect with each other after legalization—that’s what I’m being charged with,” said Greene. “I keep on fighting because I want to show people how important it is that they do the same, regardless of what they are up against.”

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