In Light of Innocent Client's Ordeal, Clinic Professors Urge Crime Commission to Reform Sex Offender Registry


Innocence Project Clinic directors Matthew Engle and Deirdre Enright, above left, with students from last year's clinic.

December 9, 2011

As part of a multi-pronged strategy to clear the name of their client, Edgar Coker, a young Mineral, Va., man who was falsely accused of rape, three University of Virginia law professors told the Virginia State Crime Commission this week that the state should reform its system of registering juveniles as sex offenders.

The professors — Deirdre Enright and Matthew Engle, co-directors of the Innocence Project Clinic, and Andrew Block, director of the Child Advocacy Clinic — told the commission that the system, which requires lifetime public registration, is proving unfair to their client. Coker remains on the Virginia State Police Sex Offender Registry despite the fact that his then-14-year-old accuser recanted her allegation of rape shortly after he was convicted at the age of 15 in 2007.

Despite his innocence, Coker pleaded guilty to rape on the advice of his court-appointed lawyer after the prosecutor said he would try him as an adult and ask for a lengthy adult prison sentence if convicted. After pleading guilty, Coker was committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice and placed on Virginia's sex offender registry for the remainder of his life.

"Although Edgar was innocent originally, and has committed no juvenile or criminal law violations since, he will continue to suffer the harm of being on the registry with no opportunity to petition for removal," the professors said in a statement provided to the commission.

The Law School's Innocence Project and Child Advocacy clinics have been taking part in the ongoing effort to clear Coker's name. (More)

Coker's mother, Cherri Dulaney, and the mother of his accuser both appeared at the hearing to speak on Coker's behalf.

Dulaney told the commission that her wrongfully convicted son continues to suffer from his inclusion on Virginia's sex offender registry.

Andrew Block, director of the Child Advocacy Clinic, testified Tuesday before the Virginia State Crime Commission.

"We have had to move after neighbors complained and left threatening notes on our doors," she said. "Edgar is afraid to apply for a job because he will have to share that information with an employer. He is afraid to even go out of the house. He was doing better for a while, but, less than two months ago he was at a football game at the very school he graduated from, and where he was a regional track star after he got out of juvenile prison, and got arrested just for being there."

Dulaney asked the commission to implement changes to the sex offender registry that would allow people like her son to be removed.

"Young people like Edgar have to have the opportunity to get off the sex offender registry when a mistake like this is made," she said. "It was bad enough that he was locked up for 15 months because a frightened young girl lied. But to continue to allow this lie to ruin his life is inconceivable. Young people make mistakes, and there has to be a way to fix them."

Michelle Sousa, the mother of Coker's accuser, also spoke before the crime commission. She echoed Dulaney's call for reform.

"My daughter and I are determined to do whatever we can to help Edgar get his life back, and ultimately, that is what has brought me here today," she said. "I ask you to please consider changing the sex offender laws so that people like Edgar, who are placed on the registry while still juveniles, have the chance to petition to get off when they are still young enough to lead a healthy and productive life."

The opportunity to present Coker's story to the crime commission came Tuesday as the commission held a hearing on whether Virginia's juvenile sex offender registration requirements are in compliance with federal law.

The professors' testimony — which was prepared with the help of second-year law student Kelly Quinn — urged the commission to consider the Maryland juvenile registration model, which mandates that juveniles are placed on a non-public registry, accessible solely for law enforcement purposes and that, absent a request from the prosecutors and a judicial hearing, registration automatically concludes when the juveniles reach the age of 21.

A model similar to Maryland's, the law professors said, would recognize that most juvenile sex offenders do not generally re-offend or become sexual predators and that they "should not have to live a life burdened by the harms of registration."

At the very least, the professors argued, Virginia should provide juvenile offenders with the chance to petition to have their name removed from the registry "when they are still young enough to make up for the limitation of opportunities posed by our current public registration requirements."

Quinn, who is in the Law School's Child Advocacy Clinic, said that sex offender registry laws should recognize the difference between juveniles and adults.

"In so many other areas of juvenile law, we have recognized this principle," she said. "For example, the Supreme Court has banned the death penalty for juveniles. States have separate juvenile courts and juvenile detention facilities. But with sex offender registry laws, juveniles are often placed on the registry for life, or cannot petition to be removed for 25 years, just like adults."

Quinn added that the differences are notable when looking at the motives for sex offenses.

"Many juvenile sex offenses occur because of experimentation, or even more sadly, because the juvenile is repeating acts that were inflicted upon him or her," she said. "This is drastically different than the motives of adult sexual predators, and it should not be treated the same."

Block acknowledged that while lawmakers expressed some interest in their testimony, they will likely be skeptical of any reforms that might be perceived as going easy on sex offenders.

But, he added, Del. Greg Habeeb, a Republican from the Roanoke area, after learning about Coker's ordeal from a recent story in the Washington Post, has said he intends to file legislation that would allow juvenile offenders to make claims of actual innocence, a move that could help clear Coker's name and remove him from the registry.

"The legislative session hasn't started yet, so we do not know who will propose what." Block said. "But if not this year, then at some point in the future, I am confident that legislators in Virginia, as they have elsewhere, will come to realize that a one-size-fits-all approach to young people in the court system doesn't work and that it is smart and effective criminal justice policy to make individualized decisions about the consequences and punishment we impose on children."

And in regards to Coker's case, Block said that the legal team — comprised of both professors and students in the Innocence and Child Advocacy clinics and lawyers from the Legal Aid Justice Center and the law firm McGuireWoods — would continue to try to clear their client's name.

The Virginia Supreme Court is scheduled to hear an appeal in Coker's case in January. Engle, who is slated to represent Coker before the court, will argue that his client should be allowed to sue to overturn his conviction.

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