Nevada County courts determine whether offenders are ‘sexually violent predators’ after doing time
November 29, 2016
William Rennie has been in custody almost continually since 1997, after convictions for molesting girls as young as 5.
Rennie was scheduled to be released from prison in 2014 after serving his sentence for multiple assaults in Nevada County. But he remained in a civil detention limbo for nearly two more years until last month, when he was determined by a local jury to be a sexually violent predator.
Rennie then became what is believed to be the first offender from Nevada County to undergo the process for "SVP" classification, a process created by the state in order to detain certain sexually violent offenders at a psychiatric hospital to receive treatment until they no longer pose a risk of re-offense.
A second Nevada County defendant — Raymond Lee Duzan, convicted in 2013 of a lewd act against a child — is currently undergoing SVP proceedings and is awaiting trial.
“They have committed horrible crimes ... They’ve done their time. And so, what are we doing? Are they getting the treatment that will help them — or are we just using this to lock them up for the rest of their lives?” — Public Defender Keri Klein
There are plenty of questions as to whether "sexually violent predator" laws, which exist nationally, are constitutional or even effective.
But serial offenders such as Rennie were the impetus behind the development of SVP laws across the nation, beginning in the late 1980s.
Rennie had a string of sexual assaults against very young girls on his rap sheet dating back to the 1980s, and was awaiting prosecution for the series of molestations in Nevada County when he was arrested in 1997 for committing a similar offense in Oregon.
In post-conviction interviews, he has tended to blame his victims, reportedly saying they were promiscuous or provocative. He told one psychiatrist that his legal troubles were due to his status as a vagrant, on making bad choices and a "carefree lifestyle."
Only a tiny percentage of the state's convicted sex offenders end up detained under the sexually violent predator program, said Department of State Hospitals spokesman Ralph Montano.
When a prison inmate with such a conviction comes within six months of parole, he is referred for a mental health evaluation as a potential sexually violent predator.
To be determined as a sexually violent predator, the inmate must meet three criteria:
The person has been convicted of a sexually violent offense against one or more victim(s); has a diagnosed mental disorder that makes them a danger to others; and is likely to re-offend. That likelihood is determined by a set of criteria and must be 50 percent or higher.
A sexually violent offense typically involves force, violence, duress, or threats. All sex crimes against children fall under that definition.
"They have to reach certain criteria, to get a referral," Montano said. "Only a fraction are determined to be eligible for the SVP program — it's less than 1 percent."
Those offenders are evaluated by two state hospital or independent evaluators. If they disagree, two more evaluators come in. Those that meet the SVP criteria are referred to the District Attorney's office in the county where they were convicted.
"It is the DA's responsibility to move forward," Montano said. "They could decide not to pursue the SVP designation, and the inmate would then be released with their commitment (done)."
If the DA's office elects to pursue SVP status, the inmate is placed in a state hospital pending full commitment. A judge conducts an initial probable cause hearing to determine whether to proceed.
Currently, there are 450 inmates determined to be potential SVPs who are awaiting trial, who are currently being detained at DSH-Coalinga.
The inmate then will face trial, either by jury or by a judge, and if it is determined they are a sexually violent predator, they will be committed to a state psychiatric hospital for an indeterminate period. They can petition annually for release, be recommended for outpatient status by DSH practitioners, or be determined to no longer meet SVP criteria.
According to the state, there are 487 patients who already have been determined to be sexually violent predators at Coalinga and are undergoing treatment.
If the inmate is not found at trial to be a sexually violent predator, they will be released and placed on parole.
Inside the evaluation
William Rennie was detained as a probable sexually violent predator, bouncing between Nevada County jail and Coalinga State Hospital, starting in late 2014.
His jury trial, which got under way in Nevada County Superior Court in October, offered a glimpse into exactly how offenders are evaluated and classified in this extremely rare civil proceeding.
"This is a civil case, not criminal — this is an important distinction," said attorney Scott Fielder, who was appointed to represent Rennie.
Defendants like Rennie have served their time, but they have not been released, Fielder said.
"The danger of these types of cases, is that people can be held without having committed a further crime, based on their future danger, a future crime," he added.
And, Fielder said, psychological evaluations used as evidence make it "very much a crystal ball procedure."
Nevada County Public Defender Keri Klein agreed the science behind the evaluations is very much an issue.
"The big question is, are they using the right studies, the right tests," Klein said. "Is it a knee-jerk reaction, or is it based on true science? I don't know if anyone has the answer."
Deputy District Attorney Jesse Wilson, who represented the county in the proceedings against Rennie, said the DA's office carefully reviewed the referrals, adding, "It is very much of a case by case evaluation.
"We make sure, from a legal perspective, whether the (qualifying) convictions actually count," he continued. "We look at the credibility of the experts, how much detail they went into."
Wilson acknowledged part of the evaluation process is speculative, but added, "There is no crystal ball, true, but there is a risk we can't take in releasing that person into society."
In Rennie's case, Wilson said, "A lot of it came down to his interviews. He still viewed himself as the victim … This guy was still saying these young girls were acting inappropriately and he was acting normally.
"I know that's the problem I focused on as a prosecutor. He wasn't even able to say, 'I messed up — and I was wrong.' It came down to, in his case, this guy's responses are very concerning, (his potential release) increases the risk to the public."
Wilson hit that point hard with his opening statements, detailing the number of Rennie's offenses dating back to 1980, the extreme youth of his victims and his reported lack of remorse.
"He said he doesn't need treatment — he just needs to avoid girls who will make accusations," Wilson said.
"He shows no culpability, he blames the girls, he places himself as victim," the prosecutor continued, adding that Rennie in one case denied inappropriate behavior and in another, called the victims provocative or promiscuous.
One of the girls was 9 years old, Wilson said.
"That's his level of insight and responsibility," he added.
Rennie has a pedophilic disorder, Wilson told the jury, adding, "It does not cure itself and it doesn't just go away."
Rennie has not opted for a treatment program and denies he is a pedophile, Wilson charged.
"He poses a serious risk to the community at this time," he concluded.
Rennie's attorney, Fielder, worked to humanize Rennie and told the jury there were significant stretches of time during which his client was not charged for any sex-related offenses — including a 10-month stretch in 2003, when he was out on bail.
Rennie served his time, Fielder argued, and there is no evidence that he would re-offend upon release.
Fielder also sought to cast doubt on the accuracy of the evaluations, telling the jury there is no predictive validity to the tests because they are all done differently.
"He has been in treatment, he is ready to be admitted to parole," Fielder said, referring to his enrollment in the first phase of treatment. "He is not a sexually violent predator at this point."
'Difficult issue for both sides'
After days of testimony from multiple psychiatrists, the jury deemed Rennie to be a sexually violent predator and a commitment to a state hospital was filed.
He is currently detained at Coalinga and, if the statistics hold true, will be there indefinitely. A notice of appeal has been filed, however.
In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that California — which spends more than $100 million a year on the program instituted in 1996 — has only allowed 34 SVPs to leave the hospital for a final stage of a treatment program that involves counseling and monitoring while living at home. Twelve of those had convinced a judge to release them without supervision. The state does not formally track whether they are arrested for new crimes; none were known to have re-offended.
Next up in the Nevada County legal system is Raymond Duzan, who has undergone his probable cause hearing. At a status conference in court Tuesday, his trial was scheduled for May 17, with a pre-trial conference set for April 21.
According to court records, Duzan was convicted of one offense as a juvenile and then re-offended in 2009.
At his probable cause hearing, Deputy Public Defender Jody Schutz argued Duzan had no record of offenses from 2004 to 2009, or since 2009. Duzan, she said, does not meet the criteria of having a pedophilic disorder, and there is no evidence he is likely to re-offend.
Her boss, Keri Klein, says SVP commitment ultimately is a philosophical question.
"Children don't have voices in our system, generally," Klein said. "They are the ones we inherently want to protect … It's a difficult issue from both sides of the coin.
"They have committed horrible crimes," she continued, but added, "They've done their time. And so, what are we doing? Are they getting the treatment that will help them — or are we just using this to lock them up for the rest of their lives?"
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.
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