A Q&A with former Los Angeles prosecutor Robin Sax
Child sexual predators are every parent's worst nightmare, and the recent discovery of Jaycee Lee Dugard, the kidnapped California woman who had been kept for 18 years by a known sex offender sparked new fears about how well law enforcement is monitoring the most dangerous criminals among us. Sex crimes expert and former Los Angeles County Prosecutor Robin Sax and author of, “Predators and Child Molesters: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Kids Safe” tells The Crime Report's Cary Chu the raw truth about child molestation and what we can learn from the Dugard case.
The Crime Report: How can law enforcement help prevent In light of the Jaycee Lee Dugard case how can prosecution and probation prevent future cases?
Robin Sax: There needs to be more of a coordinated effort between the court and parole in terms of making sure what type of perpetrators are on parole. For example, a rape charge can be either for adult or child assault, and there needs to be a clear identification of whom and what the charges was the basis of conviction. Sometimes if there's a plea bargain, if you only get a rape charge, you may not get the full exact story of what occurred.
In the Dugard case specifically, this is a case of parole dropping the ball. Their responsibility is to follow up and watch their parolees, know what they're doing and making sure they're not a threat to the community.
TCR: Would any sex offender legislation such as registration have helped?
Sax: He (Phillip Garrado) was registered [as a sex offender]. It's frustrating because the anti-registration people are using this example of why registration doesn't work. This was a lapse of intelligence in the responsibility of local agencies in gathering information about Garrado.
What also went wrong were the sexually violent predator (SVP) laws weren't followed through. Under specific provisions, Garrado should have been in custody for life. He had two prior cases of kidnapping that would've justified a civil commitment. He shouldn't have been out to begin with.
TCR: Most sex offender legislation involves registration. Is there anything that can be done to prevent first time offenders?
Sax: The best thing that could be done to deter offenders is to raise the awareness in victims. If you encouraged people to start coming forward to talk about it, then perpetrators wouldn't have that power of silence over victims.
Discussed in the book:
Sexual abusers have a preexisting relationship with a child or children. Some of the things to watch out for are whether or the person has a history of sexually abusive behavior, or being abused, special access to children, and ability to isolate the child in one-on-one situations.
TCR: You mention in your book that most sexual abuse victims are assaulted by someone they know. How can prosecutors build a case with support of the family without damaging their relationship with the victim?
Sax: The key is, first of all, to treat the whole family as a victim of the crime. Someone who betrays the trust of a parent of the victim basically victimizes the whole family. We can get them to cooperate by making them understand they have also been victimized by the perpetrator.
The other thing is to recognize that sex crimes can be perpetrated by all kinds of people. There are people who seem kind, smart, and nice who are also perpetrators. If someone's a good businessman, a nice woman, or a great teacher, it doesn't mean that they can't be abusing kids.
TCR: How likely is a guilty verdict for cases that reach trial?
Sax: The chances of a guilty verdict go down exponentially once there's a trial, compared to cases that go to plea bargaining. Juries can be strange. You might have a jury come back with a guilty verdict on a particular charge and not guilty on another charge, with no rhyme or reasonable explanation. Juries are keenly aware of punishment and can have a difficult time sitting in judgment of other people.
The strength of corroborating evidence (ex. forensic evidence such as DNA matching) affects the likelihood the jury will convict, which in turn affects what type of plea bargain will be offered.
TCR: How many of your sexual assault cases ended in plea bargains?
Sax: I would say 85 percent of my cases ended in plea bargaining. Plea bargains aren't always a bad result for the victim and the public, as an example would be if someone who faces a life sentence plea out to 40 years would be considered a good result.
TCR: You mention how media coverage can affect individual child sex assault cases. What in particular hurts or helps a case?
Sax: Sometimes the media can help in terms of driving awareness and putting pressure on lawyers and judges in making sure that they're properly handling these cases. It could also have the opposite effect as well, as pressure makes those involved in the case show off for the media, put additional pressure on a child victim, and make a victim not want to participate in trial.
TCR: Has the media ever hurt any of your cases?
Sax: They have not. I had a case where I thought the media had a good effect. It was a case of a child sexual assault by a teacher (Thomas Arthur Beltran) that the media picked up, and we ended up getting victims from all over the world contacting us, saying that they were victimized. It was the power of positive media coverage that encouraged people to come forward.
TCR: What solutions do you see for keeping sexual predators away from children?
Sax: A top priority for me would be to limit the amount of continuances that happen in cases, and to really make child sexual assault cases a priority by judges over other types of cases. I've had situations where judges say that their attention is on other cases. The penal code says that child sexual assault cases get priority, so it's not a matter of law not having merit, but rather it not being followed through. If more people were educated and trained in these issues, they would have the power of the public to advocate. Sometimes bringing things to the public view shames the people of power to make change.
Cary Chu is the social media intern at The Crime Report.