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Court ruling upends Maryland's sex offender registry

About 400 rapists have been taken off Maryland's sex offender registry this year

The memory of the break-in still stirs terror three decades later: The Rockville woman was ordered out of bed at knifepoint by a teenage burglar, who commanded her to stare out a window as he started to take off her robe.

Before anything else could happen, the woman's husband, who had been tied up in the bathroom, broke his bonds and violently tackled the teen, leaving both of them with stab wounds. That ended Robin Lippold's 1981 summer crime spree, which included other burglaries and a rape.

But it did not eliminate the woman's fear, which lingered long after the pre-dawn attack. That dark emotion surfaced again last week, when she learned that Lippold had been removed from Maryland's sex offender registry, a searchable public database that lists each person's residence and place of employment.

The 50-year-old Lippold is among 1,155 sex offenders who have been removed from the registry since February, according to data obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request. Almost 400 of them are rapists, including a man who raped a blind teenage girl in a mall parking lot and a man who raped a 67-year-old woman who was walking her dog.

Most have been stripped out because of a decision by Maryland's highest court. That ruling handed a victory to advocates who said the registries were unfairly punitive, but has troubled legislators and upset victims.

Lippold "should have to pay for his crimes as long as his victims are paying for them, and I'm still paying," said the woman, who now lives outside Maryland but would not allow her name to be used because she fears another attack.

"If the state isn't going to protect the public from such criminals then, at the least, the state has a responsibility to let its citizens know where the person is living," she said. "The kind of vileness it takes for a human being to seek out and rape unknown women doesn't go away."

The Court of Appeals ruling — that laws governing the registry subjected some offenders to a form of retroactive punishment — has radically altered Maryland's system of tracking people convicted of sex crimes.

Experts say there's little evidence that the registries help keep the public safe, and can unfairly punish offenders. Some judges around the United States have agreed that the registries amount to unconstitutional punishment in some cases. In Maryland, a prominent defense lawyer is continuing to fight in the courts, seeking to get more names removed from a list that she says stigmatizes too many people.

But the lists are popular among legislators, who see them as an option to keep the public safe and give people a reassuring way of looking up who among their neighbors or colleagues has been convicted of sex offenses.

Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said of the Maryland appeals court judges, "What they've done is sickening … it's mind-boggling. The court's shown a total disregard for the community."

Lippold acknowledges that he's just the kind of criminal many people would like to see stay on the list for life.

"I wanted to get some money and if I ran into an attractive woman while I was at it, I was unrestrained," he said of his days as a violent teenager.

Lippold and the man who tackled him were taken to the same hospital, and left to recover with just a curtain separating them, the man's wife said. Lippold confessed his crimes to police and in 1982 pleaded guilty to rape and the string of burglaries for which he was prosecuted as an adult. Then in 1986 he was indicted in a 1980 rape to which he also pleaded guilty.

But he says that because he served his prison sentence and has never been in trouble in again, he should be left alone. "I grew up over time. … I had changes in my life."

A widening net

When Lippold was released from prison in 1993, the registries were still in their infancy — Maryland's was not created until 1995. At first they were designed as a way for police to keep tabs on known criminals, but they grew into public websites with photos and other information on offenders.

Maryland's system has followed that general pattern, and most offenders are now required to register multiple times a year for life.

The registry's website lets users search for offenders by name, or see all who live near a particular address or in a specified ZIP code. Search results include offenders' photos and information on their felonies or misdemeanors. Results can be displayed in a list or on a map.

Gradually, the Maryland General Assembly has toughened laws governing the registry, increasing the range of crimes and closing perceived loopholes.

For example, Jerome F. Toohey Jr., a former Catholic priest and Calvert Hall High School chaplain, was convicted in 2005 for abusing a student in the late 1980s. Because the crime occurred before the state registry law took effect, he was not required to register upon conviction.

A number of state lawmakers looked at that case and a saw a troubling loophole. They changed the law in 2009 and Toohey was put on the list.

Thomas Roberts, whom Toohey abused, said offenders should only be removed from the registry if they can show they were wrongly convicted.

"I believe in forgiveness," said Roberts, the host of a morning show on MSNBC. "However, I am a bigger believer in consequence when it comes to punishments against those who would sexually abuse a child. I know who my abuser is ... but will his new neighbors?"

Roberts, who has spoken publicly about the abuse, gave permission for his name to be used in this article.

Toohey could not be reached for comment. The attorney who represented Toohey said they have not been in contact for a long time.

Maryland stiffened its sex offense laws again in 2010 after a registered offender killed 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell on the Eastern Shore. Those changes brought Maryland into line with federal standards for tracking sex offenders and laid down lengthy mandatory sentences for people who rape children.

But changes made by the General Assembly to broaden the registry have left it open to legal challenges.

While the registries have many supporters, researchers have found little evidence that they reduce the rates at which sex offenders commit new crimes.

"Those policies were based on myths: Once an offender, always an offender," said Elizabeth J. Letourneau, a sex crime researcher at the Johns Hopkins University. "They are unlikely to be harming community safety by removing people like that from a registry."

Lisae C. Jordan, an advocate for victims of sex crimes, said accurately measuring recidivism rates can be difficult because many offenses go unreported. But she also noted that registries have never been a way to stop all offenses because most would-be rapists have never been convicted.

What the studies do show, experts say, is that having to register makes it harder for ex-convicts to successfully find work and have productive lives.

In postings on an Internet forum critical of the Maryland registry, offenders have described their struggle getting work. Lippold said maintaining an income has been a ongoing challenge.

Lippold set up a vending machine business — earning praise from his parole officer — but it eventually failed. He said he lost other jobs when employers found out he was on the registry.

"I felt the registry was an excessive abuse after the fact," Lippold said.

In other cases, communities have turned to vigilante justice. Last week, a Baltimore woman was sent to prison for six years for her part in the beating death of a sex offender.

Now Maryland's registry is being trimmed because the Court of Appeals ruled in 2013 that people who committed crimes before it was created had been subjected to fresh punishment in violation of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.

The challenge was brought by Robert Merle Haines Jr., a former junior high school teacher in Washington County who was convicted of sexually abusing a 13-year-old student. Haines could not be reached for comment, but his lawyer has said that he long struggled to find employment because he was on the list.

The Court of Appeals was fragmented but in a patchwork of opinions, ultimately sided with Haines. Applying the laws retroactively violated the "fundamental fairness and the right to fair warning" about the consequences of a crime guaranteed by the state constitution, Judge Clayton Greene Jr. wrote.

Courts across the country have split on whether states should be allowed to stock their registries with people who committed crimes long ago.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 2003 ruling, found that Alaska's laws did not violate the U.S. Constitution. But Alaska's top court later struck down a registry law, basing its decision on the state constitution, and courts in Oklahoma, Ohio, Maine and Indiana have reached similar decisions.

This year, the Maryland Court of Appeals rejected a last-ditch argument that the state was required by federal law to keep offenders on the registry. Soon after, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the registry, began taking names out of its database.

The corrections department is working with the attorney general's office and local prosecutors to evaluate candidates for removal from the list. Anyone who committed a sex crime before Oct. 1, 1995, is being considered, as are people whose offenses did not initially trigger registration. Part of the review includes checking that offenders have not committed any subsequent crimes that would require registration, state officials said in a written response to questions.

Officials say they have removed 808 people because of the court ruling. Others removed since February have been taken off for other reasons, such as moving out of Maryland or dying.

Hundreds more people still need to be checked out, the officials said.

Many of the people who have been taken off the registry committed their crimes and were convicted before it was set up; others were prosecuted more recently for conduct that happened long ago. Corrections officials say Toohey is being evaluated for removal.

Lippold, who lives in Hagerstown and has long been a campaigner against the registry, discovered he had been removed as he checked his cellphone during a break from his job making lenses for eyeglasses.

"I didn't bow my head down and cry or anything like that," he said. "It was more a case of I knew this was coming and it's damn well about time."

Nancy S. Forster, a Baltimore attorney representing a number of people challenging Maryland's registry laws, said she has other cases in the works that could lead to more offenders being taken off the list.

The attorney general's office is examining the cases and will fight in court when it sees the opportunity. And some lawmakers said they plan to craft legislation that might soften the impact of the Court of Appeals ruling. Possible options include creating a registry that's only available to law enforcement or using a risk assessment system to flag the most dangerous offenders.

Forster, a former head of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, thinks the General Assembly might be out of luck, unless it can change the constitution.

"Thank the Lord for an independent judiciary," she said.

Now that the judges have had their say, Sen. Nancy Jacobs said, the debate now should focus on the victims of sex crimes. Jacobs, a Cecil and Harford County Republican, pushed hard to toughen sex crime laws in 2009 and 2010, but is leaving the Senate.

"We need to care more about the victims than about the people who sexually assaulted these children," she said. "They need help."

More than three decades later, the woman whose home Lippold broke into continues to suffer repercussions from the attack.

"The effects of his actions are ingrained into the very fiber of my being now," she said. She has nightmares and wonders how many other women might have been attacked had her husband not shown the courage to intervene.

She is compulsive about checking that her home is locked up tight at night. Her husband sleeps with a shotgun by the bed, and they have other weapons strategically placed around the home.

"Those actions are a direct result of Robin Lippold's breaching the sanctity of our home," she said.

Lippold, too, finds himself walking round his house at night, checking the windows. After all, he said, he knows what people are capable of.

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Rapists removed from the registry

Maryland officials have been taking people off the state sex offender registry after the Court of Appeals ruled they were included unconstitutionally. Among those removed:

A man who raped a Morgan University Student at knifepoint.

A crack dealer convicted in the gang rape of an Edgewater woman.

A man who raped a blind teenage girl in a mall parking lot.

A man who raped a 67-year-old woman who was walking her dog in Glen Burnie.

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