Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

“She’s Going to Point at You in Court, and You’re Going to Lose” (Jason and Lisa’s Story, Part 1)

What happened at a party on February 9 in 1991 lit the fuse of an explosion that hurled Jason Norman into the alternate universe from which he and his family have yet to emerge. (Jason and his wife asked that their real names not be used in this story because of fears of harassment.)

By his own account, Jason didn’t exactly behave like a model citizen growing up in San Antonio, Texas. The son of a single mom, he was forever running with the wrong crowd. He partied all the time with friends, got into a fight or two, hung out with gang members (though he says he never joined).

“I was just one of those kids who took chances, and I wanted to be like the crowd, which was totally wrong,” he says now.  

At 17, he had a 16-year-old girlfriend named Melinda. That February night, he and his friend Johnny drove in Johnny’s van to pick her up at her house. When they got there, a surprise was waiting for them—Melinda’s parents were at the door.

They glared as he came in. They’d heard rumors that Jason had another girlfriend. They asked him point-blank whether it was true. He denied it—Melinda was the only one. “She really likes you Jason, and she doesn’t want to get hurt,” Melinda’s mother told him. But her parents believed him. They told Melinda she could go.

The three of them took off and got to the party. It was just getting going–three girls and five or six guys drinking around a fire. Jason had a couple of beers, and so did Melinda.

An hour in, Melinda wanted to get her jacket out of the van and asked Jason to come with her. They started talking, then fooling around. Soon they’d climbed into the van and were getting undressed. But then Jason’s older brother opened up the back door. It killed the mood, and they headed back to the group.

Another hour passed. By now, Jason’s brother was drunk, and he did the unthinkable. He told Melinda the truth—Jason had lied to her and her parents. He was seeing someone else.

She started crying and demanded to be taken home. They got in the van for a noisy and unhappy ride, Melinda crying and calling Jason names all the way back. They got to her house and walked her to the door. And it got worse–Jason’s brother tripped and broke the house’s porch light.

The next morning, Jason called to apologize. He’d lied about the girlfriend. He offered to pay for the porch light. Melinda’s father was in no mood. “Forget it. I never want to see you again,” he said.

The next morning, Jason was home in the kitchen when his mother came in looking strange. She’d just gotten off the phone with Melinda’s mom. Melinda had told her mom that Jason had raped her the previous night.

Jason told his mother the whole story. “I didn’t rape her, and she knows that,” he said. “We didn’t even have sex.”

He thought nothing more would come of it.

But two months later, during another night of partying, Jason got into a fight and landed in the hospital with a head injury. His grandmother came to visit and brought sobering news—the cops were looking for him, and they wanted him “real bad.” “Did you get a ticket you didn’t pay or something?” she asked.

He went to the county courthouse. A clerk sent him to the judge’s office. He was being charged with the sexual assault of a child–Melinda. The judge released him on a personal recognizance bond—he paid a fee and promised to check in with the court by phone every week until his court appearance.

He went home, and an hour passed while he watched his 1-year-old brother while his mom made a trip to the store.

Then he saw something weird–the doorknob turned. The front door opened. Two sheriff’s deputies charged in, grabbed Jason, threw him on the floor. Jason’s little brother started screaming.

“We’re here to arrest you for sexual assault of a child,” one shouted at him. Jason told them his paperwork was right on a table. “You’re lying,” they said. But then they looked at the bond and saw he was right. As they left one of them told him he was lucky. “We were going to kick your ass,” he said. To Jason, it all felt unreal—a movie that ends with the principal losing everything.

Almost two years went by until a trial date was set. He couldn’t afford a lawyer and was appointed one by the court. When they met, the lawyer told him he’d gotten Jason a deal he shouldn’t refuse—8 years deferred. That meant no prison time, only probation, if he agreed to plead guilty. If he finished probation with no further offenses, his plea deal wouldn’t even show up on a criminal background check.

But if he went to trial and lost, he’d get 10 years in the cage. Jason didn’t want to take it—“What evidence does she have?” he asked. “She’s going to point at you in court, and you’re going to lose,” the lawyer replied. “It’s your word against hers, and the jury is going to believe her because they usually do in rape cases.”

Jason shook his head—he claimed he was innocent, and he wasn’t going to plea to a crime he says he didn’t do. But his mother sat him down. He needed to take his lawyer’s advice, she told him.

He couldn’t say no to his mother—he took the deal.

But it was Jason’s bad luck to plead to a sex-related offense just when new sex-crime legislation was rolling across the country. In 1994, the U.S. Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Act, which required states to create the first sex offender registries.

And though the law wasn’t in effect at the time of Jason’s plea, Texas went back in time, putting everyone convicted of or pleading to a sex crime since 1970 on the state’s registry. Now his name, address, and photo were on a police website, though it wasn’t yet available to the public.

Jason thought he could live with being on a private list if it helped the cops do their jobs. That would change soon enough.

Next: “How Long Can a 17-Year-Old Be Punished?” (Jason and Lisa’s Story, Part 2)


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