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Shank seeks end to sex offender loophole

March 10, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

ANNAPOLIS -- Elizabeth Gilchrest's father began sexually abusing her when she was just 5 years old.

The abuse continued until she was 12, and now at 25 years old, Gilchrest says she wants to help warn others about the crimes committed by her father, a Sharpsburg resident.

Gilchrest, a graduate of Boonsboro High School who now lives in Hawaii, was in Annapolis Tuesday to testify in favor of a bill that would correct a law that allows sex offenders like her father to avoid registering as such.

Her father, David Alvin Smith, 57, was convicted of third-degree sex offense for abusing Gilchrest.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, sponsored the bill, which would retroactively add sex offenders to the Maryland Sex Offender Registry, correcting what he calls "a loophole."

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The bill was heard Tuesday before the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee. No action was taken.

The current law prevents people who committed a crime before 1995 who were not charged until after October 2001 from registering. Shank's bill would apply to people convicted in 1995 or later whose crimes occurred before 1995.

About 130 people charged with sex offenses have been able to avoid registering as sex offenders because of the loophole, according to testimony. The majority of those people have committed crimes against children.

The abuse Gilchrest suffered took place from 1988 to 1995, and it wasn't until 2007 that she turned her father in to the Washington County Sheriff's Office. Experts testified Tuesday that child victims often wait years to report abuse, especially if their abuser is a parent.

Smith originally was forced to register after his conviction in 2008, but Smith's lawyer is petitioning to have him removed based on the loophole. He is still listed on the Maryland Sex Offender Registry.

Shank said the bill is similar to one he filed in the General Assembly last year after learning about the loophole from a Washington County woman, who offered written testimony Tuesday in favor of Shank's bill.

In 2005, the woman reported to police that Robert Merle Haines Jr., sexually abused her 22 years prior, when she was in eighth grade. Haines was her social studies teacher at the time.

Maryland State Police began an investigation into Haines' behavior in July 2005 after the victim contacted police. Charges were filed several months later. Haines pleaded guilty to the charge for inappropriately touching the girl and was sentenced in September 2006 to serve 10 years in prison with 5 1/2 years suspended.

Haines also has not registered as a sex offender because of the law's loophole.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services supported Shank's bill, but offered some amendments. The Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Abuse also supports the bill. It is opposed by the Maryland State Bar Association and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

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