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As a prosecutor, Laura Rogers ’84 took on cases dealing with the aftermath of child abuse, rape, and murder. Now at the Department of Justice, she’s trying to make sure that registered sex offenders don’t have any place to hide—on the map or on the Web.
By Emily Elrod '05
JESUS GONZALEZ JR. WAS 24 YEARS OLD IN 1992 when Assistant District Attorney Laura Rogers asked the San Diego Superior Court to impose the maximum sentence on him: more than a century in prison. Gonzalez had been found guilty of 16 counts of kidnapping, assault, and sexual crimes. He was, Rogers said, “every parent’s nightmare.”
It was while Gonzalez was being held for sexual assault in Riverside County that other victims were discovered. The detective investigating found evidence tying Gonzales to a case wherein two 7-year-old girls had been lured into a car then raped and sexually assaulted in a number of ways. The girls were walking home from the local Chuck E. Cheese's and accepted Gonzalez’s offer to take them to a park. Afterward, he dropped them off in front of a bar in National City, just a few blocks from a police station. One girl required emergency surgery.
Rogers had—and still has—trouble coming to grips with how, in his short life, Gonzalez turned into a monster. During the trial, Rogers said he was “for all intents and purposes an animal who [could not] be controlled.” He was engaged to be married, had an infant son, and held a job as a construction worker. Yet, Rogers said, he hated women and displayed his anger by brutalizing them. Only putting him behind bars for life would stop him from repeating his crimes; therapy wasn’t an option.
Gonzalez’s father told the court that his son was “a bad angel” whom God would punish. The boy suffered from brain damage after a high fever as a child; he was also a victim of rape himself. But to Rogers, that wasn’t enough to let Gonzalez off with a light sentence.
“He is a bad angel,” Rogers acknowledged before the court, “and this bad angel should not be trusted to be a good angel.”
Gonzalez was convicted and sentenced to the maximum penalty: 105 years in prison, with no eligibility for parole until 2067. For the assistant DA, it was a victory of a sort. With cases like this, Rogers says, “Even when there’s a success at trial, it’s still a tragedy.”
Looking back at that case and others like it, Rogers explains, “As a prosecutor, you develop a skewed sense of reality. Now, as a mother of two adopted children, I find it’s even more awful to think about. But if it’s not difficult for you, you’re not part of the human race.”
The Gonzalez case was horrendous—though atypical in one terrifying respect, notes Thomas Plante, professor of psychology at Santa Clara. The typical sex offender is someone well known to the victim, he says—a parent, stepparent, cousin—not a stranger off the street.
But the Gonzalez case was terrible enough that Tim Drum, the detective who led the investigation, subsequently requested a transfer out of child abuse investigations. “This case put me over the edge,” he told a reporter.
IN DECEMBER 2006, ROGERS WAS APPOINTED by President George W. Bush as the founding director of the Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART). For the past two years, she has been charged with implementing national minimum standards for what has been up until now a patchwork of local and state laws regarding sex offender registration and notification—and she has tried to enforce the tightening of the seams in the system. Based in Washington, D.C., she still takes on issues revolving around the nightmare cases she tackled as a prosecutor, though at a greater distance. “I deal with it in a sanitized environment,” she says.
That new environment is the upper floor of a downtown Department of Justice building, a few blocks from Ford’s Theatre, the National Portrait Gallery, and the International Spy Museum. Photos of her children and their preschool artwork cover the wall by her desk, while images of her wedding vow renewal ceremony in San Diego with husband Charles “Cully” Stimson hang on the wall next to the couch. Behind her desk near the windowsill there’s another picture of Stimson reading a biography of Ronald Reagan—her “favorite president”—next to a coffee mug that praises “short but powerful” people. Rogers is petite—about 5’3”, with brown hair and striking blue eyes. Sitting on her office couch hearing stories about her children, her husband, and her search for the best chocolate chip cookie recipe, it's easy to forget you're not in her living room.
Rogers always wanted to be a prosecutor. One of the times in her life when her calling was clear came during her freshman year at Santa Clara. She lived in the Lafayette Apartments close to campus and made the startling discovery that her roommate’s boyfriend was serving time in juvenile hall for killing his high school teacher: He had shot him point-blank.
Rogers found jarring the fact that the killing brought a relatively mild sentence. She also took note of the fact that, incongruously, the photos showed a room for the killer far nicer than the one Rogers lived in as a student.
After Rogers graduated from Santa Clara with a B.A. in English, her interest in criminal law led the Los Gatos native to the California Western School of Law in San Diego. In 1988, Rogers joined the San Diego District Attorney’s Office and stayed on for more than a decade. Early on, she was put on a misdemeanor child abuse case that piqued her interest and evoked her sympathy. She started picking up all the child abuse cases for the office and, in 1990, asked to be put on a specialized child abuse unit. In 1995, California implemented a new sex offender registration law. Rogers was in charge of all prosecutions and law enforcement trainings in her unit.
While living in San Diego, she met her future husband. Stimson was stationed there as a member of the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, where he has served as both a defense attorney and a prosecutor. Their mutual interest in law and politics helped draw them together. Describing the time they first met, Rogers sounds almost girlish. “I admit, I loved his white uniform,” she says.
Stimson was offered his choice of his next duty station. “He asked if he picked London if it would affect our relationship,” Rogers says. “I said no, but we both assumed that meant I was coming with him. Then we got engaged, married, and I did.”
Based in London, Rogers served as an American legal correspondent for Sky TeleVision and, through the U.S. military, taught law part time at the university level. She also developed some side work as a seamstress, with her trusty Singer plugged into a converter. Through word-of-mouth publicity, Rogers gained a clientele for homemade crib sets, pillows, curtains, and the occasional baptismal gown.
AFTER ANOTHER TOUR IN SAN DIEGO, Rogers and Stimson made their way to the nation’s capital. She was a senior attorney at the American Prosecutors Research Institute’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse and adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law. He worked as a prosecutor for Frederick County, Md., specializing in homicide cases, before serving as assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. In January 2006, Stimson was appointed assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs worldwide, a position that brought 14-hour days and put him at the eye of the storm swirling around detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo. It was a position he held until early 2007, when he stepped down after controversy erupted over remarks he made in a radio interview were widely seen as criticism of major law firms whose attorneys were doing pro bono work on behalf of detainees at Guantánamo. He is now a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and he’s frequently cited as an expert on the ongoing trials of detainees.
During their second stint in San Diego, Rogers and Stimson learned that they could not have biological children of their own. The news came at a time when Rogers was working on child homicide cases. Her work hit even closer to home. By the time the couple moved to D.C., they had decided to adopt. As both Rogers and Stimson were adopted themselves, they always considered that an option. After unsuccessfully trying to adopt domestically for three years, they decided to adopt from Russia. In 2003, they became the doting parents of Sophia and Ian.
Their “babies,” as Rogers calls her preschoolers, were adopted from an orphanage in Kirov, Russia, when they were four and six months old. Rogers and Stimson were lucky: The whole adoption process took only nine months. Even luckier, their kids were relatively healthy.
“The orphanage was falling apart outside, but inside, it was clean and bright,” Rogers says. “The women cared for and loved the children, and it was a good facility by comparison—but it was still sad.” Mobiles were made of old spoons and toothbrushes—though, Rogers notes, “all clean.”
In order to spend time with her children and make up for the lost months when they had no parent to bond with, Rogers started her own consulting firm that year, the National Institute for Training Child Abuse Professionals. She focused on offering courses for prosecutors and child advocacy organizations. Rogers says it proved a success; her specific skill translated easily to teaching, and it allowed her to work only five days a month.
Rogers also put her Catholic upbringing to work after sex scandals rocked the Church beginning in 2002. She chaired the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus Review Board on Sexual Abuse and Pastoral Conduct. The board consulted in proactive efforts to remove child abusers: The Jesuits created a review board to examine every allegation. If a case was submitted to and rejected by the civil authorities, the board would nevertheless investigate independently and make its own recommendations to the head of the Province. Inquiries were also made to every organization that had ever employed a Maryland Jesuit to determine if a report of improper conduct had gone unaddressed.
This past spring, Rogers attended the White House ceremony welcoming Pope Benedict XVI. She said she was pleased with the remarks he made about the abuses within the Church. “The Pope is dealing with the issues in my line of work,” she says. “Healing must go on.” All in all, she says, it is an interesting time to be a Catholic.
THE SMART OFFICE WAS CREATED to implement aspects of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which sets a national standard for sex offender registration and notification, and to administer the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). President Bush signed the Walsh Act into law in July 2006, on the 25th anniversary of the abduction of the son of John Walsh, host of America’s Most Wanted. With Rogers’ appointment in December 2006, the SMART Office was open for business.
As director, Rogers has to be strategic. Her day-to-day job includes implementation planning, grant and budget review, and, now, preparing for new leadership to succeed her under a new president. The schedule usually doesn’t allow for lunch away from her desk. But her legacy as director is worth it, she hopes. That legacy will include the Final National Guidelines on Sex Offender Registration and Notification; the renovation of the National Sex Offender Public Registry to include new software resources that will allow for families to be electronically notified when a sex offender moved into their neighborhood; an e-mail database that will allow for the identification of a sex offender's e-mail address; secure communication between sex offender registry officials to allow for the transfer of information regarding moving sex offenders; and the implementation of minimum standards for registration by sex offenders across the country.
Californians are used to hearing about community notification acts such as Megan’s Law. But not all states and territories have enacted laws that are as aggressive in allowing tracking of child predators. It wasn’t until 1994 that Congress provided a national law with the passage of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. That act, and amendments that followed, were helpful, Rogers says. But they still left many gaps and loopholes that allowed offenders to evade registration— such as moving to a different state—or to avoid the consequences of registration violations.
The Wetterling Act covered all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and principal territories, but it left federally recognized Indian tribes a safe haven for offenders. And there was no consistency regarding offenses that were covered.
Sex offender Web sites were not consistent; each state had discretion over which sex offenders and what information would be disclosed online. Registration wasn’t standardized, either. A rape case in one state might bring years of mandatory registration in one state but lifetime registration in another. Rogers hopes that by establishing a new minimum national standard based on three tiers of offenses, SORNA will increase the consistency of current programs.
After almost two years of drafts and reviews, the National Guidelines on Sex Offender Registration and Notification—essentially an 80-page checklist—were published in July 2008. Criminal justice professionals, sex offender registration officials, state and local governments, tribal governments, legislatures, and the general public weighed in during the review cycle. Rogers was “very happy” with the result. Under the new guidelines, SORNA:
SORNA isn’t being implemented without some criticism. During the review period of the guidelines, one of the biggest concerns was how juvenile offenders will be entered into the system: Would two teenagers in a consensual sexual relationship be at risk? What about a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old? A 12-year-old and a 17-year-old?
Rogers says SORNA isn’t meant to punish kids “playing doctor.” Instead, it’s about cracking down on violent sexual assaults: An offense consists of the equivalent of rape or attempted rape, executed by force, threat of violence, drugging, or rendering the victim unconscious. When both participants are at least 13 years old, there is an age gap of less than four years, and the act is consensual, no registration is required. So, a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old in a consensual relationship do not need to register; but if it’s a 17-year-old who forcibly sexually assaulted a 12-year-old, registration is mandatory.
Another concern is that SORNA is retroactive: Certain categories of offenders whose sex offense convictions predate SORNA or its implementation in particular jurisdictions may be required to register now, even though they didn’t have to before.
“If it wasn’t retroactive, it would still be a patchwork law; you’d only be able to register sex offenders going forward with any consistency,” Rogers says. “It would be decades before it embraced the spirit of what Congress intended. What some people don’t understand is that the law doesn’t go find sex offenders who have served their time. If offenders are no longer incarcerated, registering, or on supervision in their jurisdiction, they're clear. An offender has to bring him or herself back into the system by being convicted of a crime—sexual or otherwise—to be required to register under SORNA. If the person is currently on supervision, they are affected retroactively."
The effectiveness—and fairness—of SORNA has been brought into the larger debate as to whether or not sex offender laws even work. Some states incorporate criteria residency restrictions and community notification in addition to registration. While Rogers agrees not all laws are equally effective—such as residency restrictions, which SORNA does not include—she argues that other aspects, such as full name and address disclosure, are necessary.
Rogers concedes that there will never be complete protection from sex offenders; after all, it is hard to stop a crime that hasn’t been committed. However, she says, “SORNA gives people the choice between having the opportunity to know about sex offenders in their neighborhood, or to have nothing. People abuse and take advantage of children. Who’s to say we can’t give families more knowledge and protection?”
She knows that sex offenders, once out of jail, can have a difficult time finding housing or employment; ostracism is a natural result of the crime. However, that doesn’t mean the people on the SORNA registry shouldn’t be on it. “I err on the side of protecting children,” she says. “After sex offenders have been convicted, they’ve gone through the fairest, best legal system in the world. People may disagree on the tier offenders are registered on or their final sentence, but after they’re in the registry, they’ve earned it. You might be able to measure that offenders out of jail have had a hard time getting jobs, but how can we measure the number of children who have been protected from potential victimization?”
SINCE THE SORNA GUIDELINES WERE COMPLETED this past summer, Rogers’ office has moved on to implementation of the new law. Jurisdictions must comply by July 2009. But Rogers anticipates most will apply for extensions.
Work on the National Sex Offender Public Registry also continues. There’s another aspect of Rogers’ legacy that makes her proud: Sex offenders must now register their e-mail addresses and all Internet screen names. These go into a separate database and, soon, a parent, for example, will be able to take a suspicious e-mail address, plug it into the registry, and see if it belongs to a registered sex offender. If sex offenders fail to register, or if they change their e-mail without updating the registry, the offense will be punishable by law.
After two years helming the SMART office, Rogers is looking forward to a less stressful life once she makes the handoff to her successor. This fall, in addition to the responsibilities of job, wife, and mother, Rogers made sure to carve out time to prepare elaborate chocolate desserts for her 15th annual “Chocolate and Cheers” party, held the weekend after Thanksgiving. She was also on the lookout for a decent Mexican restaurant in the capital. And she is still busy as a seamstress.
Over a weekend last spring, she made three identical bear costumes for a preschool production of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Sophia was to make her stage debut as Mama Bear, but the little girl caught a bad case of stage fright. Ian, however, took on the role of the old man with the beans in Jack and the Beanstalk without a hitch.
When Rogers’ appointment with the Department of Justice is completed, there is one more non-work-related item at the top of the agenda: She and her husband are in the process of adopting two more children.
Emily Elrod ’05 is a writer from the Bay Area. She recently co-edited Califauna: A Literary Field Guide.