At approximately 8:20 p.m. on Monday, October 22nd, University of Utah college student Lauren McCluskey, 21, was found shot to death inside a car parked on campus. Only a short time before, the star track-and-field athlete had been on the phone with her mother, Jill McCluskey, who reported hearing her daughter’s last words.
“Suddenly, I heard her yell, ‘No, no, no!’ I thought she might have been in a car accident,” Jill McCluskey said in a statement to press. “That was the last I heard from her.”
Less than six hours later, at around 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the body of her alleged killer, Melvin Rowland, was found inside the pastor’s study of a nearby church, dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Rowland and McCluskey had dated for a month before she ended the relationship on October 9th, after a friend informed her that Rowland was not who he presented himself to be. He had given her a fake name, lied about his age and concealed his criminal history. The 37-year-old was a registered sex offender; in 2004, he pleaded guilty to enticing a minor on the Internet, after being caught by a law enforcement investigator posing as a 13-year-old girl, as well as attempted forcible sexual abuse of a 17-year-old. He had several stints behind bars, and was most recently paroled in April.
Jill McCluskey says her daughter complained to university police that Rowland was harassing her after she ended their relationship, and requested they come with her to retrieve her car, which Rowland had borrowed on October 10th. University Police Chief Dale Brophy told reporters that two police reports had been filed, on October 12th and 13th, but he could not confirm if an officer from the agency did accompany McCluskey to pick up her car. A detective was assigned to McCluskey’s case, but according to Brophy, university police didn’t have a current address for Rowland.
Utah Department of Corrections (DOC) spokeswoman Kaitlin Felsted tells Rolling Stone that the DOC database, as well as the publicly available sex offender registry, did have a current address for Rowland — but the DOC was never contacted by university police about Rowland or McCluskey’s harassment accusations. Felsted was unable to explain why university police didn’t have Rowland’s current address in their records, or how the DOC disseminates location information for parolees to law enforcement agencies; Rolling Stone has reached out to University of Utah police for comment, but has not heard back.
Rowland’s status as a registered sex offender has been highlighted in media coverage of the case, raising questions about how it could have helped prevent this murder. But the case actually underscores how ineffective offense-based registries are at crime prevention, a criticism made by groups like Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, amongst many others. Critics say that sex offender registries fail to make communities safer, and serve primarily as a lifetime punishment that unfairly imposes restrictions on a broad spectrum of people.
“Peer-reviewed research demonstrates that 95 percent of reported sex crimes are attributable to first-time offenders,” Guy Hamilton-Smith, a legal fellow for the Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, tells Rolling Stone. “That means that registries and other post-conviction restrictions on liberty have very little impact on the vast, vast majority of sexual violence.”
Federal laws like the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act (in 1994), Megan’s Law (in 1996) and the Adam Walsh Act (in 2006) required states to set up sex offender registries and impose restrictions on where they can live and work. They were all enacted on the premise that disclosing to the public the sexual offenders in their neighborhood would empower parents to guard themselves and their children from future sexual victimization, and work as a deterrent for would-be sex offenders. But not only has that been proven not to be the case, this premise serves to reinforce myths about sexual violence that don’t reflect the majority of reported sex crimes.
“Registries adopt this model that predators lurking in the shadows are the ones doing all this raping, but that’s generally not the case,” says Hamilton-Smith. “It’s people that we know, people that we trust, sexual violence takes places within the context of relationships, of workplaces, of schools, of churches, etc., not random acts of violence.”
These sex offenders are also not necessarily pursued by law enforcement to the fullest extent, let alone taken to court, found guilty and made to register. What constitutes a “sex crime” varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and in many cases can include far less severe offenses than rape or child molestation — like public urination, children and teenagers experimenting with their peers, or even sexualized breastfeeding. These registrants are often subject to restrictions that bar loitering, working or living within certain zones, making reentering society after prison next to impossible — and can actually encourage re-offending in other ways.
“There is research that supports public registries actually increase re-offense rates by basically making it impossible for someone to be anything but a criminal by making their life so utterly miserable that they can do nothing but stay on the margins,” says Hamilton-Smith. “In many jurisdictions, maybe even all jurisdictions, the most common reason for people on the registry to go back to prison is not for a new sex offense, but is for so-called failure to comply offenses. So, it creates ‘crime’ by essentially making up all these new ways for people who are trying to survive to catch a charge, then also by draining public safety resource from places where investment might actually make a difference. To the extent anyone rehabilitates themselves, they do not do it because of the registry, they do it in spite of it.”
When Lauren McCluskey learned Melvin Rowland’s real identity and his criminal history, she ended their relationship. When he began harassing her, she went to police repeatedly, but it remains unclear what, if anything, was actually done to help her. It seems that this is exactly the kind of case the registry could have assisted with — his address was right there on the publicly accessible list. The fact that they didn’t look shows that the registry isn’t being used effectively by law enforcement to protect people from being further harmed by sex offenders, including in a common scenario like threats of violence from an intimate partner. So if it’s not used to protect victims, is there any justification for such a database?