When date rape is a life sentence

Kathleen Parker
Posted: May 10, 2006 12:05 AM

When most of us hear the words "sex offender," we imagine a beast who kidnaps little girls from their bedrooms and rapes and murders them before dumping their bodies in a remote ravine.

We see the adorable faces of Polly Klaas, Samantha Runnion or Jessica Lunsford and can think of no punishment cruel enough for their killers.

But what I've just described is, in fact, a "sex predator" - one who commits a sex offense that is either a capital, life or first-degree felony - not merely a "sex offender," which relates to a less serious offense.

More to the point of this column, "sex offender" also refers to those convicted of "date rape," which is invariably a case of "he said/she said" and often involves young people caught in the throes of a debatable moment.

She was drunk, he was confused. She said "stop," he didn't stop fast enough. Sometimes he's a brute justifiably accused of rape. But sometimes she's not the victim she claims to be. Sometimes, alas, morning-after remorse morphs into a defensive claim of rape that sends college boys to prison for an offense that falls somewhat short of what most of us think of as rape.

I opened the floodgates recently with a column about Rich Gorman, a former Florida State University student who is serving a five-year prison sentence for a "rape" that involved a 5- to 15-second sex act. He stopped immediately when she said "stop," and asked, "What's wrong?" - not the usual query of a rapist - and then gave his soon-to-be accuser a ride home.

Rather than rehash the details, suffice it to say that Gorman's case raises questions about how we prosecute date rape, questions that I intend to explore in future columns. I've learned, meanwhile, that Gorman is not unique. I've heard from dozens of parents around the country whose college-age sons have wound up in prison because their dates decided that what he understood as consensual, she understood as rape.

I have no idea how many of these claims are valid. Most parents naturally believe the best of their own children, while few prisoners admit to guilt. But the special circumstances of "date rape" - especially among college students immersed in a permissive culture of drinking, drugs and "casual" sex - raise concerns about how we label those accused and convicted.

Should a young man like Gorman, for example, be treated the same way as Alejandro Avila, the sexual predator who kidnapped and murdered 5-year-old Samantha Runnion?

I suspect the answer to most fair-minded people is "no." Obviously, there's a difference. Yet, under current Florida law - and under similar laws in other states - Gorman is treated largely the same as those who brutalize children.

Indeed, upon his release from prison, Gorman faces the same lifetime sentence as a predator. He'll have to register as a sex offender, checking in with local sheriffs twice a year, and suffer the stigma of being identified to neighbors as a sex offender.

But, critically, will neighbors also learn that Gorman earned his label in college for a questionable date rape, not for molesting a child? The question doesn't minimize the seriousness of true date rape, but given the clear differences between a Gorman and an Avila we should ask it.

It is worth noting that society seems to worry more about alleged date rapists moving next door than it does about new neighbors who might be murderers, drug dealers or violent offenders, for which there are no comparable registries.

In our justifiable repulsion in the face of monsters like Avila - and in our efforts to make the world safer for children - we have used too broad a brush.

Thus, Gorman's Tallahassee attorney, Michael Ufferman, plans to challenge Florida's sex offender registration statute as unconstitutional. His position is that the law fails to meet the due process clause of the state's constitution because the law includes no requirement to find that the offender is a future risk.

The same challenge has been made - and failed - regarding sex predators, but predators tend to be pedophiles, who have a high recidivism rate. Men such as Gorman inarguably fit another category and surely deserve a different dispensation.

Ufferman plans to file his challenge July 1 - near the one-year anniversary of Gorman's imprisonment. If he succeeds, Gorman and others like him could get a fair shot at becoming the citizens, husbands and fathers they hope to be, a second chance at life following a single bad judgment way back when.

If he fails, we should lock away our sons and daughters until saner winds prevail.