October 18, 2008 in Opinion

Our View: All involved in Coe trial deserve commendation


Kevin Coe kept saying no. No, he didn’t rape women. No, he wouldn’t reoffend, because he had never offended in the first place. And no, he wouldn’t seek treatment for sexual deviancy mental illness.

On Thursday, a Spokane County Superior Court jury decided that no, Coe would not be released from confinement. Not now. Perhaps not ever.

Victims cried with relief, because the state convinced a jury that Coe – who may have assaulted dozens of women – isn’t safe in any community.

The civil commitment process used in the Coe case worked well here, but the process itself should always be nervous territory for lawyers, judges, juries and citizens.

Our country was founded on stringent legal standards designed to preserve a citizen’s right to life and liberty. You are innocent until proved guilty. The state must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that you are guilty of the crimes with which you’ve been charged. You cannot be tried twice for the same crime.

The civil commitment process can be seen as a way to get around these basic legal safeguards to allow for “make-up calls” when a defendant has been acquitted, or slapped with a minor punishment, even though the preponderance of evidence suggested a different outcome. Only one of Coe’s convictions withstood appeal; he served 25 years in prison.

Washington state’s 1990 Sexually Violent Predator Act acknowledges the reality that sexual predators with severe mental illness do immeasurable damage to other humans. Allowed to roam free – without conscience, without remorse, without treatment – predators are at high risk to prey as long as they are physically able. The constitutionality of the act was narrowly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court a decade ago.

Kudos to Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor, the jury, the attorneys, the victims – and the media – for the meticulous care given to openness during the Coe proceedings. All the victims showed great courage in testifying, and two of them allowed their names and photos to be used in media reports. Highlights from the court proceedings were seen on the evening news. Longer video pieces were available on media Web sites. Two veteran Spokesman-Review reporters covered the court case full-time.

And after the verdict, jurors spoke out. They knew the gravity of their decision. Mattias Herzog, the presiding juror, didn’t sleep well for three weeks. Juror D’lyn Bruce said, “I hope people don’t think this was easy for us. It was very difficult.”

Anytime the civil commitment process is used, transparency and justice must be the watchwords. In the Coe case, they were. And many people – especially the victims – will rest easier now.

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