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Lawmakers should end Alaska courts' experiment in public shaming

Marcelle McDannel

Last month, James Mooney, a soft-spoken man who bears a striking resemblance to Conan O’Brien, tried to describe to the Alaska Legislature what it’s like to be falsely labeled a sex offender. The Legislature was considering Senate Bill 108, a bill that would require the Alaska Court System to end its inadvertent experiment in public shaming. Through its CourtView database, any member of the public with access to the internet can search all court cases filed in this state -- including criminal cases that ended in dismissal or acquittal by a jury. The bill would require the court system to restrict access to these dismissed cases.

James Mooney was charged with sexual assault. His fiancée, with whom he lived and shared a child, called the police on him, claiming that James had fondled her while she was sleeping. The district attorney’s office decided to file charges. A prosecutor brought the case before a grand jury, but prosecutors get to decide what evidence the grand jury hears. James' fiancée was their star witness.

It took two years for James’ case to go before a trial jury. In the meantime, using the free services of the Office of Victims' Rights, James' fiancée got him kicked out of their shared home as condition of his bail. Once he was out, she sold their condo and its contents, pocketing all of the proceeds. She used this money to move to Hawaii -- a move James had been resisting for years -- and took their three-year-old daughter with her. Represented by the Office of Victim’s Rights, James' fiancée requested and enforced a strict “no contact” order, which meant that James couldn’t have direct or indirect contact with his fiancée and, by extension, his daughter. James lost his home, his family, and after his boss found out about the charges, his job.

When his case finally reached a jury, James was acquitted of all charges.

But apparently James hasn’t suffered enough. His public shaming as a suspected sex offender continues through CourtView. Every time he applies for a job, he braces himself for the moment a prospective employer tears up his resume when the second-degree sexual assault charge pops into view. He’s learned not to be surprised when new friends stop returning his calls, or his kids’ friends aren’t allowed to come to his house.

The justification for this continued harassment cited by organizations like the Office of Victims' Rights is that acquittal doesn’t necessarily mean innocence. But sometimes it does. James Mooney’s jury found that he was actually innocent. I know this because I was one of James Mooney’s lawyers. We spoke to the jury after the verdict. They all found that the fiancée lied -- that she manipulated the justice system to get free, uncontested custody of her daughter. The jurors urged James to get on a plane to Hawaii and get his daughter back.

The rationalization for keeping dismissed charges public is the very reason they need to be confidential: too many people are not willing to believe that someone charged with a crime, particularly one that invokes public ire like sexual assault, can be innocent. But hundreds of people are acquitted by juries each year and thousands see their cases dismissed by prosecutors. This is not a “failure of justice,” as acquittals are so often salaciously described in the media, but our justice system at work. It is designed, after all, to ferret out the truth through an adversarial contest -- a trial by jury -- and sometimes that truth is that the “victim” lied and police got it wrong.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any post-trial procedure to restore the reputations of the falsely accused. But the very least we can do is to quit shaming them. Let James Mooney live the rest of his life in peace.

Marcelle McDannel has been working in criminal law for almost two decades, both as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. She currently practices criminal defense statewide.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.