Sex offender to remain free despite new law
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A convicted sex offender who faces nearly two dozen charges in Utah but has remained free because of a legal loophole likely will never face trial or be confined to an institution, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
"He falls into this gray area," Utah County prosecutor Craig Johnson said. "For criminal prosecution, we are in an indefinite holding pattern. The proceedings are stayed, perhaps forever."
Lonnie Johnson, 39, was charged in 2007 with 21 sodomy and sex assault counts after police said he had inappropriate contact with his stepdaughter and her cousin. A year later, however, a judge deemed Johnson incompetent to stand trial due to a cognitive disorder.
He spent about two and a half years at Utah State Hospital while doctors worked to make him well enough for trial. But last year they said he had shown little improvement, and he was eventually set free after being deemed beyond treatment.
Prosecutors sought repeatedly to keep Johnson confined, at least long enough to stand trial, but last month 4th District Judge James R. Taylor finally said his hands were tied and Johnson would remain free indefinitely.
A legal loophole in Utah law at the time the charges were filed wouldn't allow a judge to consider Johnson's pending criminal case or his previous rape conviction in Washington state when determining whether he was a danger to society. The judge couldn't order an indefinite commitment to a state hospital.
The Utah Legislature passed a bill in March in response to outrage over Johnson's release that amended the law, allowing the judge to consider previous offenses, and the prosecutor, who is not related to the suspect, said he would seek to have him committed again once the new law took effect.
That happened Tuesday, but the prosecutor said he would not pursue the case because even the new law didn't provide the legal ammunition given the unusual circumstances of the felon's afflictions.
Doctors have testified at various competency hearings that Johnson has a cognitive disorder from birth that was made worse by a brain injury after he was thrown through a windshield in a 1993 car accident. Several doctors have said treatment to restore his competency would be futile because he also has the brain injury that cannot be fixed with treatment, meaning he could never be made well enough for trial.
"The brain cells are not there," Patrick Panos, a psychologist and University of Utah social sciences professor, testified last month. "There's nothing for medication to impact."
Johnson, the prosecutor, called the case a "one-of-a kind."
"He falls into a very narrow exception in so many areas, falling through the cracks from receiving services to restoring his competence to civil commitment — this rare confluence of disorder," he said Tuesday. "We don't have any laws, provisions or services in Utah to address the needs of somebody like Lonnie Johnson. And that's frustrating for the victims."
Christy Danner, the mother of one of the two girls authorities say was abused in Utah, said in April she feels the system has let her daughter down.
Danner, whose daughter gave her permission to speak publicly about the case, said her deepest fear is that another child might be harmed.
Johnson is under no restrictions or court orders governing his conduct, movement or association with young children because his probation from Washington state has expired. He is living with his parents in Alpine, Utah, about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City. The only legal stipulation Johnson faces is to keep his whereabouts updated on Utah's sex offender registry because of his previous Washington state conviction for rape.
His family has maintained the Utah allegations are false. They have repeatedly declined to comment.
Johnson's public defender, Thomas Means, also said his client denies the Utah charges and has pleaded not guilty.
"Officially, he's not competent, so I feel uncomfortable talking about facts and circumstances in the case," Means said. "He's too mentally ill to be prosecuted, and the nature of his mental illness is not something that can be restored."
The prosecutor said that while his decision not to pursue the case further is obviously upsetting to the victims, "ultimately the Constitution protects Mr. Johnson's due process rights, and part of those rights is being able to understand the charges."