He was accused of an unspeakable crime he did not commit. For 27 years, Earnest Leap of Oakview, Missouri, has lived with the ugly label of child molester. With his name on a public sex offender list, word quickly spread that he had sexually abused his own son and admitted it in court.
The facts of Leap's case make it clear that his experience could happen to anyone who's in the midst of a contentious child custody case.
In the fall of 1989, following an antagonistic divorce, a judge ruled that Earnest and Karen Leap would share custody of their sons, 5-year-old Brodie and toddler Josh. Primary custody was awarded to Earnest, so the boys would live most of the time with their father.
Brodie Leap, now 32, remembers his mother's "incessant" cajoling to get him to say that his father had sexually abused him. Leap, motivated by a terrible guilt, has spent much of his adult life trying to undo the damage.
Hauled into court to face child abuse allegations, Earnest Leap took the flawed advice of his public defender and pleaded no contest to the charge. The deal included no jail time, a guarantee that record of his plea would disappear in three years and, most important to Earnest, it spared his son from having to testify. Back then there was no such thing as a sex offender registry.
Then, in 1994, a new federal law required every state to establish a public registry listing every person convicted of a sex crime. Leap was forced to register as a sex offender in Missouri and remain on the registry for the rest of his life. His world began to fall apart, his movements limited by rules that an offender may not be in proximity to or live near minors. Imagine going through life having to dodge schools, malls, parks, theaters or even ice cream stores.
For decades, both Brodie and Josh Leap have campaigned to clear their father's name, calling him "the most supportive and positive force" in their lives.
Finally, their efforts paid off. On Aug. 19, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon issued a full and complete pardon for Earnest Leap. He got the call and heard the news he must have longed for: complete exoneration. He was pardoned for the crime he never committed.
"I'm still overwhelmed," Leap, 57, told the Kansas City Star after the call. "I am just really, really thankful," he said.
The governor wrote that chief among the reasons he granted the pardon was the fact that Brodie Leap had never wavered from his insistence that he lied all those years ago, at the urging of his mother. (When contacted recently, Karen Leap — now Karen Harris — continued to maintain that the molestation occurred, saying: "It happened. ... My son would not have lied to me back then. I don't know why Brodie is lying now.") Sadly, neither son has a relationship with their mother.
I've written in this space before about the senseless way in which these registries are maintained. Officials should focus on tracking career pedophiles and those who produce and trade child pornography. Instead, state registries are overflowing with the names of those convicted of drunkenly urinating in public, or those involved in so-called Romeo and Juliet crimes (consensual sex between underage teens that is prosecuted as statutory rape). Just because the parents of a 16-year-old girl want her 17-year-old boyfriend to be punished doesn't mean the state should participate in ruining a young man's life.
The trend does seem to be shifting ever so slowly. Last year, the California Supreme Court declared that certain sex offender living restrictions in San Diego County were unconstitutional. The New York State Court of Appeals struck down an ordinance that banned sex offenders from living near schools. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down restrictions to sex offenders living near schools and parks, and a judge compared the restrictions with two of the darkest restrictions in our country's history — the Native American reservations and the Japanese-American internment camps.
As the Leaps' marriage was dissolving in the late '80s, President Reagan's former labor secretary, Ray Donovan, was found not guilty of fraud and grand larceny. He famously asked, "Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?
As Earnest Leap knows, it's mighty hard to undo 27 years of public perception. Where does he go now for relief from nearly three decades of undeserved punishment?
To find out more about Diane Dimond visit her website at www.dianedimond.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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