Loophole means Utah sex offender set to be freed

AP News
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Posted: Mar 31, 2011 5:02 AM
Loophole means Utah sex offender set to be freed

A convicted sex offender facing nearly two dozen charges of child sex abuse may be soon be set free because doctors says he's no danger to society even though he's not mentally competent for trial.

Lonnie Hyrum Johnson was charged in 2007 in Utah with rape, sodomy and aggravated sexual abuse of a child for alleged acts with his niece and her step-cousin between 2001 and 2006.

Each charge is a first-degree felony. If convicted at a trial, the 38-year-old Johnson would face life sentences for every count. Instead, it appears he will be freed sometime soon after a hearing Thursday afternoon.

Deemed incompetent for trial by a judge in 2008, Johnson has been institutionalized at Utah State Hospital in Provo, about 45 miles north of Salt Lake City, where doctors have been working to restore his mental capacity.

But several weeks ago, the judge found that he likely would not be made competent to face the charges, and doctors believe he wouldn't be a danger to society if freed.

"That magic language effectively kills our criminal case," county Assistant District Attorney Craig Johnson said.

Johnson sought to have the defendant civilly committed, but doctors say he doesn't meet the necessary legal standard.

Under Utah law, a defendant is incompetent to stand trial if he suffers from mental illness, cannot understand the charges against him or is unable to participate in his own defense. For a civil commitment, a doctor must find that a person's mental illness makes them a danger to himself or others. Johnson, who suffers from a cognitive disorder, falls into a gap somewhere in between.

"So we're hamstrung," the prosecutor said. "And I really can't wrap my arms around why there is this loophole, this gap in the law."

Relatives of the victims are outraged.

"I am just floored," said Christy Danner, the mother of one victim. "I don't understand how he's competent enough to let go but not competent enough to stand trial. It's not fair to the girls. It's almost like they are victimized again."

Danner said her deepest fear is that another child might be harmed.

Johnson's defense attorney, Tom Means, declined to comment because he said had not yet seen the latest doctors' reports.

In 2006, Johnson was convicted of raping a teenage girl in Washington state and sent to prison, but served less than a year before being released. He is now required to register as a sex offender, no matter where he moves.

It was only after that Washington conviction that Danner's daughter and her step-cousin, both of whom are now adults, approached their families and police, Danner said.

"He's found the perfect loophole and the scary thing is now he's got it figured out if he ever does something like this again," she said.