Minnesota’s second-highest court says a convicted sex offender should be released from a state hospital, but only under heavy supervision.
The Appeals Court ruled Monday that the Minnesota Department of Human Services did not make a strong enough case to keep Christopher Coker locked up in the state sex offender treatment program. However, the case could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Chief Judge Edward J. Cleary wrote for a three-judge appeals panel that Coker, convicted in Hennepin County, should be released under supervision. The ruling agreed with a Supreme Court-appointed panel that considers sex offender releases.
“I am very disappointed by the court’s decision,” Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper said. “Based on the review and recommendations of multiple experts, this client is not ready for provisional discharge into the community. I am looking at my options to appeal to the Supreme Court.”
The courts have released three patients to live in the community under close supervision. Courts have approved four other patients for provisional discharges, but they remain in a state hospital.
Another was provisionally discharged in 2000, but he was returned to the program because he did not comply with release requirements, a Human Services spokeswoman said.
Courts never have approved any patient’s full discharge in the sex offender program’s 20-year history.
More than 700 offenders are in the state hospital program under prison-like conditions.
Coker, convicted of raping three girls in different incidents in 1991 and 1992, has served in the treatment program since 2000.
His request to get out of the program has bounced around various court and Human Services panels as witnesses have disagreed about whether he should be released. No panel has decided he could be unconditionally released, but the Appeals Court ruling would allow him to move into a community-based facility under intense supervision.
A sex offender may be released from the program if a discharge plan provides a reasonable degree of public protection and he can adjust to open society. Cleary and his colleagues noted that experts say Coker could have continued emotional issues if released, but he would have stronger family support than many others in the program and his family says he would have a job awaiting him.
The Supreme Court panel had said that it was uncertain Coker could live well in society, but the only way to know is to “put him to the test” by provisionally discharging him.
Treatment program staff members said Coker has not been a problem and has done well on at least 30 trips into the community. However, expert witnesses opposed his release, predicting problems if he were let out.
Monday’s decision comes as a federal appeals court considers whether Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program provides a realistic chance for release.
A federal judge last year ruled that offenders were unconstitutionally held indefinitely and the state was doing little to release those who no longer need to be locked up. The state appealed that order.
State law allows county prosecutors to request that sex offenders be committed to a state hospital after they finish their prison terms. Offenders took Minnesota to court because the treatment program basically was no different than being in prison, and they already had served their time.
It is not known when the federal court will hand down its ruling, which still could face U.S. Supreme Court scrutiny.
While Dayton says he thinks the current law is constitutional, his administration is working toward a system that would allow release of offenders deemed safe enough to live in the community. He included money to provide appropriate living facilities in his public works proposal.