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Reverse Psychology

Bad Jury Decision Bounces Sex Offender Back into Confinement

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Stefano Gaudiano
MITCH GAFF DID as he was told. Unfortunately, it got him in trouble. Snohomish County Prosecutor Paul Stern interrogated him in mind-numbing detail on the witness stand about the rapes he committed 16 years ago. Gaff's hands were shaking, but he responded to each and every question, admitting without excuse that he was guilty of eight sexual assaults against women, including a 1984 attack on two Everett teens.

Gaff's courtroom confession was crucial for members of the jury. They concluded that Gaff should not be released from the Special Commitment Center (SCC), the McNeil Island mental-health facility where the state's worst sex offenders are indefinitely held. At least one juror later told reporters that Gaff's self-incriminating testimony was the reason why Gaff should continue to be held at the SCC without a set release date.

The early-August jury trial of Mitch Gaff was an egregious mistake. The very use of a jury of 12 ordinary citizens guaranteed an emotional outcome against him. The decision on Gaff's fate was supposed to be objective, based on how well he responded to mental-health therapy. Despite the fact that the quality of SCC's treatment has been questioned in other courts ["Hospital or Hoosegow?," Aug 3], five professional therapists testified that Gaff's treatment had worked. Moreover, there was no counter expert testimony. Unfortunately, Gaff is caught in a blatant Catch-22: Despite following the state's path to freedom, the jury was too terrified by the crimes Gaff committed 16 years ago to listen to what his psychiatrists were saying now. Judge James Allendorfer was so concerned about possible jury bias that he scheduled an October 18 hearing on the verdict's constitutionality.

Gaff's trial was not supposed to be about justice; Gaff had already served 10 years in prison. And since 1995, Gaff's been locked up at the SCC, a facility that's supposed to provide sex-offender therapy. The "trial," then, was supposed to decide whether or not Gaff was psychologically fit to return to mainstream society.

According to the SCC's recommendation for Gaff's conditional release, Gaff would be under 24-hour guard, required to submit to polygraph tests and drug and alcohol tests, and he would have to get a job and continue his therapy. These sound like good safeguards, but the jury didn't buy it. For one, none of the experts could guarantee that Gaff would never re-offend.

Then there was Gaff's own testimony. Gaff responded to the questions that prosecutor Stern posed to him regarding the sexual assaults Gaff had committed--questions based on statements that Gaff made in confidence to his therapists. Juror Peter Poeschel later told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Gaff's admittance (in "calm detail") of his past crimes was enough to outweigh therapists' assurances of public safety. It might seem logical that Poeschel reached this conclusion. Unfortunately, it was the wrong conclusion. The central issue of sex-offender therapy is that an offender must come to terms with one's past crimes, as well as the behavior patterns that led to these crimes. If anything, Gaff's testimony is an indication that his treatment was a success, not a failure.

"Now we've seen what happens when you come clean in a courtroom--it is used against you," says John Phillips, an attorney who represents several SCC residents in litigation against the sex-offender treatment center. "It's used against you either by the treatment center itself, or by the jury. That's a very troubling thing."

The jury decision has farther-reaching implications than the case of Mitchell Gaff. The SCC has been in trouble for years with the federal courts because its residents--all being held involuntarily--claim that the center resembles a prison more than a mental-health institution. Gaff was sent back to the SCC indefinitely after a number of mental-health professionals recommended his release. This only confirms the belief that, at its core, the 10-year-old center is punitive by nature and not treatment- oriented.

phil@thestranger.com

 

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