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New Jersey To Consider New Pedophile Law

September 24, 2000

By John P. McAlpin, Associated Press Writer

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - The murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by a neighbor with a record of sex crimes drove her mother to promote an idea that seemed simple at the time: If parents knew sex offenders lived nearby, they could better protect their children.

Megan's Law, enacted in 1994, required convicted sex offenders to register with local police and provided that the community be notified of their presence. There's now a version in every state and in federal law.

But in the six years since Megan's death, court rulings have altered New Jersey's original measure so much that Maureen Kanka says the law must be changed to make it work.

"Our judges have gone from what was a basic concept, to putting procedures in place that have really strangled the law," she said.

New Jersey and federal courts have sharply restricted public notices of sex offenders' presence to protect the offenders' right to confidentiality.

If voters agree Nov. 7, the state that passed the original Megan's Law will become the first to amend its Constitution to allow the Legislature to create a state registry of molesters and pedophiles and make it available on the Internet, the state attorney general's office says. The registry could include convicted sex offenders' names, addresses, physical descriptions and criminal histories.

Some other states already post information on the Internet and allow searches by name or address, but they didn't need to change their constitutions.

While there's no organized support or opposition, odds favor passage of Public Question 2; New Jersey voters rejected only seven of 84 ballot questions in the past 20 years.

However, the amendment does not specifically address the court guidelines on confidentiality.

Megan was raped and murdered in July 1994 by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street from her home. Her parents didn't know he was a pedophile. Prosecutors said Jesse Timmendequas lured Megan into his house to see his new puppy, then beat her, raped her and strangled her with a belt. A day later, he led police to the body in a park nearby. His death sentence is under review.

Under the law New Jersey enacted three months after Megan's murder, all released offenders still must register with police once out of prison.

But as a result of the various court rules, those offenders now are sorted into three categories.

Residents of areas specified by the courts are notified only of sex offenders with the highest danger of repeat sex crimes. They find out only from prosecutors or their agents who go door to door and give the offender's name, address and photograph. And the notified residents can't share that information with anyone.

For offenders in the middle level, community groups such as Boy Scouts or day care centers are informed, but that information cannot be shared with any residents. Lowest level offenders are not revealed to anyone other than police.

As of Aug. 31, New Jersey was home to 5,408 registered sex offenders. Since notification began in January 1998, and because of the court rulings, residents have learned the near location of only 118 offenders.

Defense lawyers object to the proposed constitutional amendment because it would allow the government to broadcast information courts have already ruled is confidential.

And once sex offender details are allowed online, that will likely force the state to post all criminal records as well, said Jack Furlong, an attorney who has challenged Megan's Law since it was first proposed.

"Ultimately, the Internet will be the vehicle for public access for all criminal convictions. Six years of judicial review, it will all be moot," Furlong said.

On the Net: NJ Attorney General