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Sex offenders bill holds new meaning

March 07, 2001

Sex offenders bill holds new meaning



By LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Above: Mary Voit holds her son Michael Ausherman in the back row of the House Judiciary Committee hearing room Tuesday. Voit's son, Christopher Ausherman, was killed by a released sex criminal in Frederick last year.

Photos:

KEVIN G. GILBERT

staff photographer

Below: Jodie Eichelberger, left, shows photos of her murdered cousin, Christopher Ausherman, during testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. Del. Sue hecht, riht, is sponsoring a bill called Christopher's Law.



ANNAPOLIS - Jodie Eichelberger asked Maryland lawmakers Tuesday to prevent her 9-year-old cousin, who was raped and murdered in Frederick, Md., last year, from becoming a statistic.

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"I hate to think he died in vain, for lack of money, or laws or red tape," Eichelberger told the House Judiciary Committee.

Eichelberger, 21, was the star witness at a hearing on Del. Sue Hecht's bill to allow violent sex offenders to be held in a mental hospital until psychiatrists determine they are no longer a threat to repeat their crimes.

The bill, Christopher's Law, was named for 9-year-old Christopher Ausherman, a Frederick County boy who was fatally beaten and strangled last November.

Committee members have killed Hecht's proposal in previous years, but it is her hope that the high-profile story of Christopher Ausherman's death will help convince them the law is needed.

Christopher's naked body was found in a baseball dugout Nov. 20. Elmer Spencer Jr., 44, was charged in his death.

Spencer was released from the Maryland Correctional Training Center near Hagerstown Nov. 14. Police say he fatally beat and strangled Christopher Ausherman five days later.

Spencer had six previous arrests dating to 1974, including four assaults on children and two on women. He had received three prison sentences totaling about 20 years.

"It didn't strike most of us as a reality that this could happen in Maryland," said Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington.

Christopher Ausherman's mother, Mary Voit, sat in the back of the room but declined to testify. She wore a gold angel pin.

Attorney General Joseph Curran testified on behalf of the legislation, as did Gene and Peggy Schmidt, who pushed for the law in Kansas after their teenage daughter Stephanie was killed.

Marcie Sweren Wogan, a former Carroll County prosecutor who prosecuted Spencer for a sexual assault there, said she did all she could to keep him locked up for as long as possible. But the law needs to do more, she said.

"There will be another dead child," Wogan said.

Opponents argued that pedophiles cannot be cured and that better solutions include prison treatment programs and closer supervision after they are released from prison.

The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the bill.

Lawmakers asked questions about whether the problem will be solved through the civil commitment process, which would be costly.

The Department of Legislative Services estimates it would cost $5.5 million the first year and $51.1 million a year by 2006.

Supporters of the bill said it will keep offenders off the street longer and said no cost is too high to protect women and children.

"We want to know if you can put a price tag on a child's life?" Eichelberger asked.

The committee also heard testimony on a bill filed by Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery, that would require more sex offenders to register with the state.

A hearing is set for Thursday on several other bills designed to address the sex offender problem by keeping them in prison longer. Those bills are sponsored by Sen. Timothy Ferguson, R-Frederick/Carroll.

Frederick County Prosecutor Scott Rolle said he supports all of the bills designed to keep sexual offenders behind bars longer.

Spencer's trial has been set for May 29.

Rolle doesn't know yet if he can seek the death penalty because of Spencer's low IQ.

Rolle said he is meeting this week with a forensic psychologist who will tell him whether Spencer meets the legal definition of mentally retarded.

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