Joseph Aqui could be in line for a “lapse.” He’ll be walking along with his wife, and an attractive young woman will stroll into view. He gives her no more than a glance, but Rita Aqui has been there too many times. “Joe, look the other way,” she says. Indeed. That way lies madness.
They don’t even go to the shopping mall, a target-rich environment Aqui has likened to “a candy store.” The nearby college campus, forbidden. Aqui wouldn’t dream of going to a public swimming pool. Even a Sunday at the park was out of the question until recently.
Aqui is a sexual predator. A man who has raped so many times that Washington deemed him too dangerous to release and - for five years after he had finished serving his prison time - held him in a commitment center for the state’s worst sexual offenders.
But Aqui, unlike 41 other inmates of the Special Commitment Center who may be there for life, beat the system. Over the objections of state officials who warned that he would strike again, Aqui earlier this year became the first to win freedom under Washington’s landmark civil commitment law for sexually violent predators.
Now, as a growing number of states adopt similar detention laws and the U.S. Supreme Court prepares this week to rule on them, the 44-year-old former prelaw student has become the symbol of the sexual-predator debate: a winsome, God-fearing, seemingly ingenuous father of two whose past - years of creeping into women’s bedrooms in the early-morning hours and raping them - the state of Washington refuses to forget.
“I hope the public can understand that there’s more to a sex offender than this one-dimensional image of a monster,” said Aqui, who is living with his wife and children in the small Seventh-day Adventist college community of College Place, outside Walla Walla.
“We’re human beings, first of all, who have made some terrible mistakes. We’ve hurt a lot of people, but that was 20-some years ago in my case,” Aqui said. “Let’s keep that in perspective, and let’s quit saying we can predict who’s going to re-offend and who’s not, because only God can do that.”
Washington was the first state to adopt a detention law for chronically dangerous sex offenders, drafted in 1990 in the firestorm that followed the rape and sexual mutilation of a 7-year-old Tacoma boy and the rape and murder of a Seattle woman - in both cases by men who had offended before.
Seven other states subsequently adopted similar laws or beefed up sexual-psychopath-commitment statutes already on the books. Kansas modeled its law on Washington’s, and it is a Kansas case - involving a 62-year-old pedophile who said only his death would prevent him from molesting more children - on which the Supreme Court is expected to rule this week.
The question before the court - Can a man who has done his time for a sexual offense be detained simply because he is likely to do it again? - could determine the fate of more than 400 inmates across the country.
Washington’s governor has vowed to call a special session of the Legislature if the law is struck down. Citizens near the Special Commitment Center in Monroe have been reassured that a ruling against the statute would not flood their community with released sex offenders. Instead, it likely would spark a review in each state to determine whether the ruling applies, perhaps followed by an orderly release, treatment and follow-up plan for inmates in their own home communities.
Nonetheless, it is precisely the specter of a wholesale release, which most analysts say is unlikely, that most worries lawyers who have argued that imprisoning a man for what he might do violates the most basic principles of the Constitution.
“What we think the public has to face up to is if they want to lock up people for life, they have to do it openly and fairly and constitutionally,” said Chris Jackson, a King County deputy public defender who represented Aqui. “But when is the last time they made a decision that released hundreds of individuals who are considered by society in general as not even human beings?”
The Washington attorney general’s office, which filed a brief in support of the statute on behalf of 38 states, has argued that men like Aqui suffer from the kind of mental disorders or abnormalities for which involuntary commitment and treatment always have been authorized under law.
Aqui met his wife, whose uncle was also an imprisoned sex offender, at the Washington state penitentiary where he was sent in 1975 after years of committing rapes, burglaries and assaults. The couple went on to conceive two children during conjugal visits. When he was paroled in 1987, the couple moved in together for the first time.
But in less than three months, Aqui was caught trespassing in one woman’s house at 6:15 in the morning, and another house at 8. Aqui was dispatched back to prison to serve out the rest of his term.
By the time he finished his term, it was 1992 and he was ready to make a go of it. Aqui hadn’t raped anyone since 1975, when he was 22 years old. His wife had a good job as a nurse in Walla Walla; he had a therapist lined up who would help him get over his addiction to sexual violence. His son was about to have his sixth birthday. The family planned a joint birthday and welcome home party.
Aqui signed his parole papers and pocketed his $100 gate money. “After I signed out, they said, ‘Mr. Aqui, we want to see you down in the lieutenant’s office.’ And after we got there, they threw me in a holding cell. One of them read me the arrest petition for the Special Commitment Center.”
As far as Aqui knew, it was a life sentence. No one had ever gotten out of the commitment center. The idea was supposed to be that inmates went there for treatment and then would be released, but there wasn’t a single licensed psychologist on the staff when the center opened in 1990.
Of 46 offenders, only nine are fully participating in treatment.Last year, Aqui’s lawyers formally petitioned for his release. After a trial before a Superior Court judge, he was ordered freed, effective in January of this year.
Little did he know, Aqui says, that the hard part was only beginning: living with a wife and two children he barely knew, tethered by an electronic ankle collar to a monitoring station on the piano in his front room. If he strays more than 20 yards, the police are called. All excursions outside the house must be approved in advance, and he must be accompanied by a court-approved monitor.
Aqui spent two months looking for a job before a local business hired him.
Although the community has been generally supportive - most of Aqui’s neighbors express a willingness to give him another chance - there were 70 people at the initial community hearing before his release, many of them fearful.
A woman at a local fishing shop, where Aqui was selling his handmade fly-fishing ties, asked Aqui not to come back. A man at the airport told him to go back where he came from.
Still, only seven people showed up for the second community meeting about Aqui’s release, and he takes that as a sign that the town is ready to let him settle in, for the moment.
“I live a very simple life. I think that’s what makes it work,” he said. “The fact is, I haven’t re-offended. I’ve been out almost five months now. Even though there are people saying, ‘Well, that’s only five months,’ the fact is that’s the longest I’ve ever been out without re-offending.
“Second,” he said, “as simplistic as it sounds, I’m older and wiser. You don’t go through an experience like the (commitment center) and say, ‘You know, I still want to do my old things. ….’ I have the love of my family, and I want to live a good quality existence.”
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