James Simpson was released from prison in May 2001, but in many ways he feels as if he still behind bars.
At the advice of his attorney, Simpson, 41, plead guilty to gross sexual assault in February 1998. Superior Court Justice Paul Fritzsche sentenced Simpson to 11 years in jail with all but four years suspended and an additional six years of probation.
While Simpson maintains that he is innocent, he also says that a new state law, which requires sex offenders to be listed on an Internet registry, has made his life a living hell.
The case against Simpson began in November 1997, when he befriended a female acquaintance and eventually allowed her to live with him at his Saco apartment. Three days later, the woman told police that Simpson raped her.
The Courier is withholding the victim’s name, but did verify that she was an adult when the crime was committed.
Released early for good behavior from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Simpson said he has been trying to put his life back on track. The problem, he says, is that Maine’s Sex Offender Registry has made it all but impossible to do that.
“Everywhere I go, people are treating me like some kind of monster,” he said. “I’m not a pedophile, but people don’t know that. They just see my name on the same list with people who hurt little kids.”
Simpson’s complaint about the mandatory registry is not the first of its kind, and law enforcement agencies admit the system is far less than perfect.
Saco Police Chief Brad Paul said the 1999 law puts his department and other law enforcement agencies in a difficult position.
“It’s a hell of a quandary,” Paul said. “The law was developed with good intentions, and it does help us do our primary job of keeping the community safe. At the same time, we try to evaluate each incident on a case-by-case basis.”
Like many other communities in Maine, Saco maintains its own website of sex offenders who now live in the city. The Saco list contains the names of 12 men, ranging in age from 27 to 74. The offenders’ addresses range from a transient who stays at area campgrounds to a downtown apartment building and the Ferry Road.
According to Paul, sex offenders must routinely “check-in” with police to update their status, including their address and place of employment.
Since the Maine registry was first published on the Internet earlier this month, Simpson said he lost his job at a South Portland fast-food restaurant. He is also no longer allowed to pick up his children from their daycare center.
Simpson, a 1981 graduate of Biddeford High School, has moved back to his hometown of Biddeford, where he stays with a former girlfriend who is the mother of his one-year-old son. He is still looking for work and a new place to live.
“This thing makes it impossible for me to live,” Simpson said of the required registry. “Everywhere I go, people treat me like a monster.”
About the registry
Maine’s sex offender registry website can be found at the following Internet address: www4.informe.org/sor/. From there, offenders can be searched by name or the municipality in which they live.
The city of Biddeford has the highest number of registered sex offenders in the tri-community area, listing the names of 30 men and women who are required to register and live in the city. According to the state’s website, the neighboring city of Saco has 11 registered sex offenders living there; and Old Orchard Beach has 10 registered sex offenders.
Each municipality offers direct links to the state’s sex offender registry from their respective homepages.
The state’s registry is maintained by the Maine State Police and is intended to provide the public information concerning the location of registered offenders currently living in Maine. But not every person listed on the site is a convicted child molester.
Instead, many of those listed have committed crimes against adults and have never been arrested for crimes against children.
On the other hand, the registry does not contain information on all individuals that have been convicted of a sex crime. Information is only provided for those individuals that are required to register under the 1999 state registry law. Registration is also limited to those who were sentenced after June 30, 1992.
Until three weeks ago, Maine was one of only a handful of states that did not provide an Internet listing database of its residing sex offenders. According to the U. S. Justice Department, only six states — Hawaii, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Rhode Island and Washington — do not have a sex offender database available on the Internet.
Angela Thibodeau, a Biddeford attorney, said she was considering a challenge to the state’s 1999 sex offender registry law. One of her clients was convicted of unlawful sexual contact during a child custody dispute in Georgia, but now lives in Maine.
“I have my own misgivings about the law,” Thibodeau said. “But I’m not so sure that any kind of challenge would be too successful. It’s something that still needs to be studied more closely.”
Thibodeau says the registry tends to “victimize the offenders” by not allowing them to move forward with their lives as other criminals who did not commit sex crimes can after serving their sentences.
“Right now, the registry is not classified by level of risk,” Thibodeau said. “I think that’s something which should be considered.”
Saco attorney Eric Cote agrees with Thibodeau. Cote served as Simpson’s attorney five years ago. He says the law is too broad and as a result, counterproductive.
“There is a substantial difference between a crime committed against a child and a crime committed against an adult,” Cote said. “This thing sort of lumps them all in together. It should be broken down into different categories.”
But Michael Cantara, Maine’s Public Safety Commissioner, said it’s important to remember that the law was drafted and passed by the Legislature after many hours of public hearings in Augusta.
A former York County District Attorney and native of Biddeford, Cantara said the registry provides nothing different than what was already public record, available for newspapers and other media outlets.
“It’s important to remember that this law reflects legislative direction that was also filtered through several federal court decisions,” Cantara said. “It’s just another tool that is meant to inform, not to alarm the public.”
While both criminal court clerks and child protective workers with Maine’s Department of Human Services report a significant increase in calls regarding potential child molesters during the last few weeks, Cantara says the public has a responsibility to check all of the facts before jumping to conclusions about someone who is listed on the site.
“It is incumbent of citizens to act properly before rushing to judgment,” Cantara said, pointing to a law that prohibits harassment or threatening of sex offenders. “While the basic information about an offender is quickly available, it does take time to find more information, which is just as available for the general public.”
For each person listed on the registry, the state supplies the offender’s name, address, photograph and physical characteristics. The offender’s birthdate and place of employment is also listed, along with the date, place and docket number of their conviction.
“It would be a mistake for anyone to see the list as their only source of information,” Cantara said. “We all share responsibility for keeping ourselves safe, but we must do that with diligence and within the parameters of the law.”
Despite his concerns about the new law, Cote said the registry can be a valuable tool. “I would want to know if a child molester lived next door to me,” he said.