WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
On July 29, 1994, 7-year-old Megan Kanka from Mercer County, New Jersey was raped and murdered by her neighbor, a registered sex offender named Jesse Timmendequas. Timmendequas was convicted of her murder and sentenced to the death penalty, which was commuted to life without parole after the death penalty was abolished in New Jersey.
After the death of their daughter, Megan's parents, with the national media attention the case garnered, lobbied for "Megan's Law", which requires that law enforcement disclose details relating to the residence of registered sex offenders.
THE MURDER OF MEGAN KANKA
Megan was, by all accounts, a sweet, energetic first grader. "Megan had a big heart; she was a great, great little girl," her mother remembered. The family had lived in the safe little enclave in New Jersey for 16 years. Maureen and Richard Kanka, a homemaker and a service-mechanic respectively, had 3 children. Megan was the youngest. She had an older brother Jeremy, and an older sister Jessica. (2)
In complete contrast to a sweet, innocent 7-year-old child, next door lived Jesse Timmendequas. He had 2 previous convictions for sexually assaulting young girls, including the 1979 attempted aggravated assault of a 5-year-old, and the 1981 assault of a 7-year-old, which landed him a mere 6 year jail sentence. (3)
During his sentence in the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center (ADTC), he reportedly didn't really participate in his treatment, and he whined and slept most of the time. One therapist during his time there stated she believed he would commit another sex crime once he got out... But she didn't think he would commit murder. (3)
On July 29th, 1994, their paths would cross in a way that no 2 paths ever should. (3)
Megan was walking home after playing at her friend's house. She was almost home when her across-the-street neighbor, a seemingly normal 33-year-old landscaper, asked if she wanted to come over to pet his puppy. Being a sweet, gentle, 7-year-old girl, of course she wanted to. (2)
She followed him into his home, but was not greeted with a puppy. Instead, he strangled her with his belt, raped her, and then put a plastic bag over her head and killed her. He put her little body into a toolbox, drove it to a soccer field, and dumped her in the bushes. (2)
It didn't take long for her to be found, though that certainly was little consolation to the terrified parents who's baby girl didn't come home the night before, only to be found murdered. Timmendequas went to the police and confessed to the murder the following day, and lead them to her body. (2)
In fact, in her panic when Megan didn't come home, she spoke with Timmendequas to ask if he had seen her, and he said that he had seen her earlier with a friend. "He was very normal-speaking, calm, very matter of fact," Megan's mother remembers of her interaction with the man who killed her daughter just hours before talking to her. (2)
In his confession, he said that he killed her because he was afraid that she would tell her mother about the attack and rape, and he didn't want to go back to jail. Apparently, however, the murder of a child was too much on his conscience, and he went to jail, anyway. (4)
Even though he lead the police to Megan's body and allegedly repeatedly confessed, there was still a trial. Luckily, Megan had fought for her life, and while it could not save her, it did provide the teeth marks needed that linked him physically to her murder. (4)
Ultimately, taking the confessions, teeth marks, bloodstains, hair and fiber samples, the jury reached a guilty verdict. Timmendequas was convicted of kidnapping, 4 counts of aggravated sexual assault, and 2 counts of felony murder. He was placed on death row until December 17, 2007, when he was commuted to a life sentence. (4)
Before Megan's Law was the Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994, which required sex offender registries for sexual offenders, and other crimes against children. This was named after Jacob Wetterling, another child who was murdered by an area sex offender. Under this act, the registry was kept to law enforcement only, unless in extreme situations. (5)
However, after Megan Kanka was killed by a man who lived directly across the street from her, her parents went on a crusade. They demanded mandatory community notification of sex offenders, and that the Jacob Wetterling Act on its own was not enough. They claimed that, had they known the criminal history of Timmendequas, that their daughter would still be alive. (5)
89 days after Megan's murder, New Jersey enacted Megan's Law. It required notification of the whereabouts for high risk sex offenders to be made public. Before Megan's death, even with the Jacob Wetterling Act in place, only 5 states required sex offenders to register with local law enforcement. (5)
On May 17, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the federal Megan's Law as an amendment to the Jacob Wetterling Act, that required the states to notify the public of sex offenders in their area, though officials were able to decide how much notification is necessary based on the perceived danger of the individual sex offender. (5)
Public notification varies from state to state, with some requiring all sex offenders to publicly notify, while others only require high-risk sex offender information to be publicly available. Under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, yet another law to protect children named after a murdered kid, sex offenders are broken up into tiers, and tier 1 registrants can be excluded from public disclosure. (5)
Megan's Law has brought about its fair share of criticism, however. I mean, if you've ever watched any crime show where a child is abducted and their parents go around harassing any sex offenders in the area, you can understand where this law has the potential to go awry. (5)
There are outspoken opponents to Megan's Law, such as Women Against Registry, National Association for Rational Sex Offense Laws, and Human Rights Watch, who have claimed the law is too broad and leads to vigilante violence. Their argument, of course, is that sex offenders are people, too, and they should not be held accountable through slander, or sometimes physical abuse, for crimes they didn't commit just because they have a history of sex crimes. (5)
In fact, evidence to support the effectiveness of sex offender registries being made public is limited. Most research does not find a statistically significant correlation between sexual offense trends following the implementation of notification mandates, while some studies even show an increase in sex crimes after implementation. Research and evidence are mixed, making it difficult to say if Megan's Law is actually a positive change. (5)
The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers criticize the automatic inclusion of different types of sex offenders without determining their risk of re-offense, or danger to the population. For instance, should a young adult in a consensual relationship with a 17-year-old be held to the same standards as a young adult who raped a 6-year-old? Surely not. (5)
I agree that the Kanka's knowing that a man who had been convicted of assaulting a 5 and 7 year old girl would have saved Megan. There is no way they would let her walk around alone if they knew that. But is this transferable to everyone? And does it need to be so broad?
John Q. La Fond, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law, opposes Megan's Law, saying: "The best crime-prevention strategy is to reintegrate the offenders into the community by helping them find jobs and become productive citizens. But that's impossible when there is angry hostility. There is a fine line between vigilance and vigilantism." (2)
A Pennsylvania truck driver, Tom Vicari, became a victim of that vigilantism. When his heat broke, he and his fiancee stayed the night with her cousin and his live-in nephew Michael Groff. When they were all sleeping, a masked intruder broke in and began punching and kicking Vicari, calling him a child molester. But the real sex offender had left the room, leaving an innocent man to get beaten for no reason. (2)
Groff had been the first Tier III sex offender to have his information released once he got out of jail. The vigilantes had hunted him down using the information from Megan's Law, but they got the wrong guy. (6)
Ultimately, however, Maureen Kanka believes it was an isolated incident, and believes in the end that Megan's Law will be a benefit to the world. (2)
Many of the laws and regulations enacted after tragedy are widely supported, and make for an unquestionably better, safer world. This is the first one I've run into that is contentious.
I think Megan's Law is good, in part and in theory. The notification of high-risk sex offenders in the area, I think, is a good thing. I do think the Vicari incident is isolated - not in its vigilantism, but in its case of mistaken identity. I don't think random people are getting beat up regularly because someone thought they were a sex offender.
Personally, I would like to know if someone who lived close by to where I live, where I walk around alone, had been charged with raping someone. If I had children, I would want to know if the people who live next to where my kids play outside by themselves had been in jail for taking a 5-year-old to the woods and trying to rape her.
And perhaps this is the wrong position to take, but I'm going to say it: I personally wouldn't be that torn up if the price I had to pay to have that information was the public slander of a rapist, or the occasional punch to a child molester. I know that, if they're out in the world, the court system judged that they had served their time, and I also know that their crimes would probably be less frequent if they were reintegrated safely into the world, but I'm also not going to feel all that bad if a dude who raped a toddler gets punched for it.
But by the same token, their re-offense risk has to be assessed. I don't think it is necessary for me to know that a guy was arrested for indecent exposure for getting caught peeing in a public place, or that a couple 2 years apart in age had sex while one was technically underage. All sex offenders are not made equal, and nor should the notification of their criminal history. And in some states, that is the case, but not in all of them.
Ultimately, the real takeaway here is that a child died, brutally and tragically, and her parents are trying to make something good out of it. They believe their law would have saved their child, and hope it can do the same for other families. And it might.