The sex offender registry is supposed to make us feel safer by keeping tabs on those who have committed some of the worst crimes against society.
A coincidental occurrence right here in our community, though, shows how false this sense of security can be.
A friend of mine came home this past week after spending three years in prison. He went there after pleading guilty to touching his young daughter improperly, a charge his family believes was trumped up by his ex-wife to hijack a child-custody fight.
She won. He lost. He served his time. Now he's a free man, right?
Not so fast. He's on the sex offender registry, so the probation officer had to go out to his house the other day with a measuring tape to see if it was too close to a neighborhood park. If it is, he can't go back home.
My friend has to tell his probation officer where he is at all times. He has to add his name to the state's sex-offender registry, and for the rest of his life will be publicly branded with a stigma that doesn't differentiate between hard-core pedophiles and hard-luck ex-husbands.
Then there's Jeffery Noel Brown.
Brown was 24 when he trolled through the Merrymont neighborhood in Martinez, saw Cheryll Ann Hughes and enticed the pretty, smiling 13-year-old girl into taking a ride.
Brown drove Cheryll to Clarks Hill Lake where the two had a little party. He gave her drugs and alcohol, and blew up when the little girl got scared and decided she wanted to go home.
So Brown shot her. Twice in the chest with a .357 magnum, and once in the head to make sure she was dead. He dumped her naked body in a sheet and dragged her through the woods, leaving her near a Lincoln County boat ramp.
Cheryll's body was soon found, but the cops didn't know who killed her until Brown called Columbia County investigators a year later and confessed. He was convicted of murder a year after that and sentenced to life in prison; his lawyers managed to get that conviction thrown out, and Brown eventually pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
Brown tried to get paroled after serving half of his 20-year sentence, and almost succeeded. Cheryll's family raised enough hell that the state Board of Pardons and Parole sent the killer back to prison until his term ended.
Well, the end is here.
Jeffrey Noel Brown, who served 20 measly years after giving the death penalty to Cheryll Ann Hughes, walks out of the Johnson Correctional Institute in Wrightsville, Ga., on Thursday, a free man. He gets a new suit, a bus ticket and $50, no strings attached.
What a contrast. Until his final breath is drawn, my friend will be eyed with suspicion, his face and name plastered on a state Web site as he serves a virtual life sentence.
Brown? Other than being prohibited from owning a gun and not being allowed to vote or run for office, he can live anywhere he wants. No one will measure how close his home is to a park or school. Heck, no one will even know where he lives, much less post his name and face on an Internet registry.
Cheryll Ann Hughes would by now have perhaps graduated from Evans High School, maybe had a kid or two of her own, possibly even a 13-year-old girl.
If she still lived in the same Martinez neighborhood and worried about that daughter, she'd likely check Columbia County's Sex Offender Registry, where she'd discover at least six of the county's 40 registered offenders live within a mile of her home. On the state's registry, she'd soon see my friend's face, too, and perhaps feel relieved that someone is keeping an eye on the perverts.
She wouldn't see Jeffrey Noel Brown at all, though, unless he happened to be cruising slowly down her street. Which he can, anytime he wants to, because he is a free man.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
Columbia County Sheriff's Office Sex Offender registry: http://www.columbiacountyso.org/home/index.asp?page=2391
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Sex Offender Registry: http://www.ganet.org/gbi/disclaim.html
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