Lonnie Johnson and evolving state law

Lonnie Johnson and evolving state law

by Rep. Brad Daw

I’m sure that many of you have heard the legal travesty of a convicted child rapist facing 21 new counts being released from custody. For those of you who have not, you can read the beginning of the story here. The unfortunate bottom line of the incident from a legal standpoint is that it revealed a hole in Utah’s criminal code. Some may want to blame the judge for not finding a way to hold Lonnie Johnson and others may want to point a finger at the prosecutor for not being zealous enough, but the fact remains that we are a state and a country that believes in the Rule of Law. And the problem is that the law never contemplated someone being mentally incompetent and a child rapist at the same time.

After the incident took place, the Utah County prosecutor in charge of the case contacted me asking for a meeting to discuss what needed to change in Utah law to prevent this from happening again. I welcomed the meeting and looked forward to learning more about why this happened in the first place and what could be done to plug the gap. After our meeting, it was clear to me that this kind of circumstance had never been contemplated and needed to be addressed in the law.

In order to hold a mentally incompetent person under the current law they have to be “at serious risk to cause or attempt to cause serious bodily injury; or has inflicted or attempted to inflict serious bodily injury on another.” Now that may sound sufficient to hold Mr. Johnson. After all raping a child ought to fit under the definition of committing serious bodily injury. The problem is that Utah code defines serious bodily injury this way: “”Serious bodily injury” means bodily injury which involves a substantial risk of death, unconsciousness, extreme physical pain, protracted and obvious disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.” And, believe it or not, sexual assault of a child does qualify as serious bodily injury. For the full text of the law dealing with civil commitment you can go here.

Fortunately, even though the release of Lonnie Johnson is a terrible miscarriage of justice, the remedy is relatively straightforward. We simply need to add to the law the notion that anyone who is mentally incompetent and presents a serious threat to sexually assault a child can be held in the state mental hospital. To that end I have contacted legislative research and begun the process of adding this to the law. I have also been in contact with the prosecutor’s association, the Utah Association of Counties, and the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Over the next few weeks we will be meeting and drafting the exact wording of the statute to clearly cover this case. I expect by the end of summer to have something ready to present to an interim committee and ready for quick passage during the 2012 general legislative session.