- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2010

SAN DIEGO | A group of bills related to child abduction and sex offenders, including one that would incarcerate the most violent sex offenders for life without parole and provide harsher sentences for forcible sex crimes, is awaiting the signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

On Monday, “Chelsea’s Law,” carried by Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher of San Diego, cleared the state Assembly floor on a 72-0 concurrence vote.

Once enacted, the measure also will place increased restrictions on sex offenders on parole, as well as mandate that the Megan’s Law website lists sex offenders’ risk assessment scores, and revise the California mentally disordered offender laws to allow for continued detention of offenders where evaluation and assessment indicate it to be necessary.

Chelsea’s Law is named after 17-year-old Chelsea King of Poway, Calif., who was raped and murdered while jogging in a Rancho Bernardo Park in February.

Mr. Schwarzenegger has said he would sign the measure. “I am committed to protecting our children and keeping our communities safe from the threat of sexual predators,” he said.

Mr. Fletcher, a Republican, said Monday that the passage of Chelsea’s Law shows that “this body can come together in a bipartisan way and make substantial changes” to what he called a broken public safety system, with “systemic failures.” He said the multi-agency group that crafted Chelsea’s Law worked nearly every day for six months to find good policy.

John Albert Gardner III, a registered sex offender, confessed to raping and killing Chelsea and also 14-year-old Amber Dubois of Escondido in a plea bargain in April and was sentenced in May. Amber disappeared in 2009 and her remains were found in March.

The sheriff’s department said DNA evidence tied Gardner to Chelsea’s slaying and that he led investigators to Amber’s remains. A measure involving autopsy reports overcame its final hurdle Monday in a 60-1 vote on the Assembly floor.

Authored by state Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta, the measure will allow some family members of murdered children to seal autopsy reports and other information after someone is sentenced for the crime. Family members in opposition will be allowed a hearing in court.

Both measures are designed to become law as soon as the governor signs them. Mr. Fletcher is working with the governor’s office to arrange for Chelsea’s Law to be signed in San Diego. No date has been set.

Chelsea’s Law was supported by the teen’s parents and their Chelsea’s Light foundation of 100,000 “changemakers,” as well as law enforcement agencies, cities, counties and district attorneys in California.

“This is a uniquely collaborative achievement, powered by people who care passionately about the children of California,” Brent and Kelly King said in a press release Monday. They hope to take the concept to other states, with support from Mr. Fletcher.

“The Assemblyman did speak with legislators from other states about Chelsea’s Law during the recent American Legislative Exchange Council conference in San Diego,” Mr. Fletcher’s spokeswoman Ericka Perryman said.

Sara Fraunces, a spokeswoman for the Kings, confirmed that Mr. Fletcher has heard from several out-of-state contacts, but that “articulating the direction is premature before the signing.”

The autopsy bill has had a slightly rockier road through the legislature.

The Deceased Child Victims Protection and Privacy Act will allow biological or adoptive parents, spouses or legal guardians of murdered children under the age of 18 statewide to seal autopsies and related materials from public and media inspection.

Those materials could include communication between the medical examiner and law enforcement, family and insurance companies, as well as computer information and other digital media. Existing California law bans duplication of autopsy photographs.

The move was opposed by media groups and the California First Amendment Coalition. Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment group, said the bill is “good politics and terrible public policy.”

“While we are sympathetic to the interests of victims’ families, nothing good comes from building walls of secrecy around the conduct of police, prosecutors, judges and other government officials,” he said.

“Most homicide prosecutions end in a guilty plea as part of a plea bargain with prosecutors. Without access to records, including coroners’ reports, the public never gets to see the government’s evidence, never gets to assess the quality of the investigation. The risks of mistakes [at best] and government misconduct [at worst] are unacceptably high.”

About two dozen media nationwide asked the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office for the autopsies of Chelsea and Amber and other information, but were denied some information based on Marsy’s Law, a victims’ rights law passed by voters in 2008.

Three other related bills have been approved by the legislature: the Peace Officers Missing Child Standards Act; the Missing Child Notification Protection Act; and the Missing Persons Coordination Act.

The bills, authored by Assembly members Pedro Nava, Santa Barbara Democrat, and Paul Cook, Yucaipa Republican, will enhance law enforcement training, response, statewide coordination and data sharing when children go missing. The bills were backed by Amber’s father, Maurice Dubois.

“We believe that the time is now to implement thoughtful legislation that will make a real difference in the way we recover missing children,” Mr. Dubois said. “We want to use our loss to bring about real change so that no family has to go through what we did.”

Mr. Dubois and Amber’s mother, Carrie McGonigle, filed a claim with the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board this month to seek financial restitution for their daughter’s death. The board rejected it stating that the claim would best be heard as a civil lawsuit in Superior Court because of the complexity of the case.

The parents are each seeking an unspecified amount of at least $25,000 claiming that the State Department of Corrections did not monitor Gardner well enough while he was on parole after serving time for a sex offense on a 13-year-old in 2000. Gardner was reported to have committed several violations that could have sent him back to prison before Amber was killed.

Chelsea’s family has filed paperwork with the board to preserve their right to seek financial compensation, should they decide to do so.

“We are just beginning to think through this issue and are factoring in a variety of opinions,” the Kings said in a press release. “If any compensation is received in the future, it will be used to further Chelsea’s dream of changing our world for the better.”

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