Package of anti-crime bills greets lawmakers

Lisa DemerAlaska Dispatch News

As lawmakers returned to Juneau for today's start of the legislative session, the Parnell administration announced a package of anti-crime bills to support the governor's 10-year plan to fight domestic violence and sexual assault.

Alaska's rates of rape, child sex abuse and domestic violence are among the worst in the nation.

One measure would close a loophole in the sex offender registry, revamp sentencing for certain sex crimes, and tighten what constitutes possession of child pornography so that just looking at it online would clearly be a crime. Another would make it harder for certain serious offenders to get out on bail. A third bill would provide for convicts who claim innocence to get DNA testing in limited circumstances and to make sure law enforcement agencies hold onto evidence, which can help with cold cases. And Gov. Sean Parnell, in his first session as governor, wants $75 million for a new state crime lab.

"This is a comprehensive plan designed to address all components of this horrible scourge," Attorney General Dan Sullivan told news reporters Monday.

He introduced Marika Athens as the state's first cyber-crime prosecutor, a new position that state Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, pushed for in last year's budget.

Sullivan said the state did a national search for the position but found Athens -- born and raised in Fairbanks -- in its own backyard. She's been a state prosecutor and graduated from Duke University law school, where she served as executive editor of the Alaska Law Review.

Athens, a former teacher, will prosecute some cases herself and guide prosecutors around the state. The job includes going after child exploitation, computer stalking and Internet fraud.

McGuire, who was heading to Juneau on Monday night, stood by Sullivan's side and said Alaska must do more to fight sex abuse and domestic violence, the way it did years ago when it toughened laws against drunk driving.

"We have embarrassingly high, dangerous rates of sexual assault. And I no longer want to live in a place where our children are at risk and our women are at risk and there is a culture that seems to allow this to continue," McGuire said. "I want Alaska to be a place that a predator would look to and say 'that's the last stop you want to make on your journey.' "

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage and the chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee, said by phone from Juneau that he's a big supporter of the new crime lab and promised to give all the governor's bills a fair hearing. Both French and Parnell, a Republican, are running for governor.

French said he's been working more than a year on a bill to require the preservation of evidence by law enforcement agencies, one prong of a measure in Parnell's package that also provides for court-ordered DNA testing after a conviction.

"I haven't compared the language and so forth but I just know we did a lot of work on ours to get ... the chiefs of police, the Department of Law, the prosecutors, all OK with it. And so we've done a lot of groundwork on that," French said.

Also, state Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, already has a bill to allow DNA testing after a conviction.

"As far as the legislators having their own bills, that's great," said Bill McAllister, a special assistant to the attorney general. "There's no competition there, I don't think." The governor, who has promised a comprehensive plan, is simply trying to fulfill that, McAllister said.

The governor's package includes:

• A major reform of bail laws. Defendants accused of serious crimes including felony sexual assault would be presumed to be a danger. So would those accused of domestic violence who had been convicted of domestic violence within the past five years.

It would be harder for these defendants to get released on bail, but they could if they presented enough evidence to a judge that they weren't a danger, Sullivan said. Also, convicted perpetrators would no longer be eligible for release while waiting to be sentenced or while their case was on appeal. A Southeast Alaska lodge owner convicted by a jury last year of two counts of sexually abusing minors fled before he was sentenced. He was found dead in August in Argentina.

• A series of changes related to sex crimes, including the closing of a loophole that has kept some perpetrators whose crimes were committed out of Alaska off the sex offender registry. That measure also would do away with suspended sentences for people convicted of human trafficking or child pornography. And it would allow tougher sentences for offenders who sexually assault a victim impaired by drugs or alcohol.

• A bill to preserve evidence and allow courts to order DNA testing for convicts in certain situations who proclaim their innocence. Sullivan noted that the state had just won a big case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which convicted rapist William Osborne was fighting for the right to test contents of a blue condom believed used in an assault on a prostitute in 1993. State prosecutors succeeded in overturning an appeals court decision to allow the testing.

"They got the Supreme Court to agree with us that the issue of post-conviction DNA testing is better left to the states, and not the federal courts," Sullivan said.

So now the state has proposed procedures for such testing. Parnell wants to allow it only in very limited circumstances. For instance, Osborne would not qualify for testing, in part because he admitted his guilt in a hearing before the state parole board, Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny said.

But it's not uncommon for defendants to falsely confess to police or swear they committed the crime even when they didn't, said Bill Oberly, executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project, which tries to identify and exonerate wrongly convicted people. The project is working on behalf of three defendants now and has heard from about 140 Alaskans who want its help. It's still investigating dozens of cases.

"You have to be careful when you start parsing out who can do (the DNA test)," Oberly said. "The goal is to find out whether somebody is guilty or not, not to fight on who should get the test."

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