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It’s been an eventful week of court rulings in South Carolina, where the state has successfully defended its newly adopted death penalty law but saw its lifetime sex offender registration law deemed unconstitutional.
The South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday the state’s lifetime sex offender registration requirement is unconstitutional. It issued an order demanding the General Assembly amend its Megan’s Law by June 2022 to provide offenders who demonstrate a low risk of reoffending an opportunity to petition a judge to have their names purged.
“(The) requirement that sex offenders must register for life without any opportunity for judicial review violates due process because it is arbitrary and cannot be deemed rationally related to the General Assembly’s stated purpose of protecting the public from those with a high risk of re-offending,” South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty wrote in the 13-page ruling.
Megan’s Law is named for New Jersey 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was sexually assaulted and murdered by a neighbor in 1994. The crime resulted in states nationwide adopting Megan Laws classifying and tracking convicted sex offenders released from prison.
While most states have amended their laws regarding sexual offenders to provide “a path” for reclassification, South Carolina’s Sex Offender Registry Act (SORA) remains largely the same as when it was adopted in 2008.
South Carolina law requires lifetime registration in a State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) sex offender registry that displays each subject’s name, home address and a photo.
The only way an offender can be removed from SLED’s Sex Offender Registry Tool (SORT) is if their conviction is reversed, if they are acquitted or if they are granted a pardon. Otherwise, the state’s SORA law provides offenders no recourse.
South Carolina’s Megan’s Law is the “most stringent in the country,” Beatty wrote, especially since SLED does not track which individuals have a low risk of reoffending.
The state’s SORT registry “dilutes its utility by creating an ever-growing list of registrants that is less effective at protecting the public and meeting the needs of law enforcement,” Beatty wrote, issuing an order mandating offenders be offered hearings in circuit court to determine whether they pose a risk to their communities.
Because the change will require lawmakers to encode it in legislation during the next legislative session, the ruling does not take effect until June 2022.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office said Wednesday it was working with SLED attorneys to evaluate how to proceed and was considering asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision.
While the state’s SORA law needs to be revised, a state judge has upheld Senate Bill 200, the bill that restores firing squads as a method of execution and allows the state to proceed with executions of death row inmates who selected lethal injection even if it cannot be administered.
At-large state Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman denied a motion Tuesday that was filed by attorneys of two inmates who argued SB 200 was unconstitutional because their clients were sentenced under an older statute that made lethal injection the default execution method and now the only method of execution available is the state’s 109-year-old electric chair.
South Carolina has not executed a death row inmate since 2011 because it is unable to secure necessary chemicals for lethal injections. There are 37 prisoners, all men, waiting to be executed.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of death row inmates Brad Sigmon, 63, who is scheduled to die June 18, and Freddie Owens, 43, who is set to be executed June 25.
“The court finds the plaintiffs have little likelihood of success on the merits of their claim,” Newman wrote in the four-sentence decision, adding she will soon issue a “detailed order.”
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Original Author: John Haughey, The Center Square
Original Location: South Carolina's sex offender law nixed; death penalty revisions upheld