There it was in the morning mail, a bulletin from the Birmingham, Alabama, Police Department informing me that a sex criminal had moved into my neighborhood.
What a way to meet the day! This Sex Offender Notification spotlighted one James Melvin Herring Jr., convicted in 2001 of first degree sexual abuse. He has taken up residence at 8313 on Vassar Avenue in East Lake. He is described as age 56, sex male, African-American, height five-feet nine inches tall, weighing 165 pounds, hair black, eyes brown, and scar on left cheek. Now you know as much about him as I do.
Immediately I began looking up and down Vassar Avenue to ascertain if this potential threat to childhood was moving about in public. Needless to say I failed to spot him. Sex offenders are notoriously difficult to pinpoint by looks alone. I watched his house for a while but it was wasted effort. No one seemed to be coming or going.
Just how vicious a criminal was now living within eyeshot of my house? Quick research revealed the law’s definition:
A person commits the crime of sexual abuse in the first degree if:
- a. He subjects another person to sexual contact by forcible compulsion; or
- b. He subjects another person to sexual contact who is incapable of consent by reason of being physically helpless or mentally incapacitated; or
- c. He, being 16 years old or older, subjects another person to sexual contact who is less than 12 years old.
Sexual abuse in the first degree is a Class C felony.
Sex abusers have hit the news big time recently, especially with the Penn State arrest of football Coach Jerry Sandusky, who is charged with sexually molesting a number of young boys over a
stretch of years. Although Sandusky’s guilt is yet to be determined, the scenario is a good indication of what can happen in a community with an embedded sex-abuser plus a public which is completely oblivious to an obvious threat. Things have changed considerably since Sandusky’s apprehension, and the public will probably remain on high alert whether or not coach beats the rap in court.
Notifications such as the one I got have set some neighborhoods ablaze with anger and protests. Some worry warts have compared it to atrocities by the Huns in Europe during the Middle Ages, claiming that notification to residents is just rubbing salt in the wounds. Actually, I pronounced it a Good Idea; it just does not go far enough. Sex abuse is a somewhat tenuous category with a lot of fuzzy edges. Under the legal definition Mr. Herring could have been a 16-year-old boy who seduced an 11-year-old girl – something like it went on occasionally in my high school. Besides, the information was only of marginal interest since I am a most unlikely victim.
But if Mr. Herring had been a thrice convicted burglar I might have hit the streets with torch and pitchfork to assault the whole criminal justice system. If his transgression had been carjacking, confidence scams, mugging, assault & battery, or murder the information might have been of urgent interest. Even computer hacking would have caught my rapt attention. But for some obscure reason Alabama does not consider it necessary to warn residents that a practitioner of the more rugged criminal ventures is about to snuggle up among them and perhaps continue his chosen vocation.
Paroled identity thieves are just as dangerous as sex abusers in a different way. Should one of this tribe lay hold of your Social Security number, debit card pin number, or bank account passwords you can be assured of anything from severe annoyance to financial disaster. I would be immensely grateful should someone warn me that one of these scum bags was making a nest next door. But, wail our civil libertarians, the poor follow has served his sentence and should not be punished further. And now it gets down to a matter of “rights,” his right to remain anonymous versus my right to sleep soundly.
And criminals do love to use suburban settings as cover for their nefarious dealings. One of the favorite tales from my childhood involves a widow named Gay Ursery whose deceased husband left her in possession of a house, a furniture store, and fabulous beauty. In time there came to the town a handsome fellow of mellifluous voice whose honeyed harmonics wooed both Gay and the town fathers. Accompanied by a taciturn sidekick who spoke to no one, he moved right in with the fetching widow and began managing her business.
In time his influence with the local mercantile establishment became so compelling that when employees of the city’s raincoat factory went on strike he was chosen by the chamber of commerce to talk them out of the idea. He seemed to have a great deal of money and didn’t mind spending it to further his personal popularity. He and his morose confederate from time to time disappeared on business trips of at unknown nature, which remained obscure until one day Federal agents arrived to arrest the pair and uncover a closet full of currency in Gay’s house.
As the story finally came out, the pair had been robbing banks far removed from our town. Ignorant of their criminal intent, Gay went back to running the furniture store. But the strain of playing hostess to desperados apparently left its mark. She had never been wrapped too tight psychologically, and her behavior became even more aberrant. City police at last had occasion to halt her as she was riding a horse through town dressed in nothing at all in commemoration of Lady Godiva’s famous exploit.
Small town attitudes change from decade to decade. Back then the populace was willing to forgive public “characters” their peccadillos and accept them as permanently warped but entertaining. Today, Gay would doubtless be labeled a sex-abuser endangering the chastity of Youth with her singular parades, and turned over to the medical priesthood for cleansing.