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Juvenile case highlights flaw in Sex Offender Registry

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In 2007, Edgar Coker Jr., then 15, was convicted in Stafford County of forcibly raping a 14-year-old friend who has a history of making false accusations.

To avoid trial as an adult and a sentence of up to life in prison, Coker pleaded guilty in juvenile court. Two months later, the girl said the sex with Coker was consensual.

Coker was released after 17 months in the juvenile correctional system. But he is still dealing with a life sentence of a different kind — his name, photograph and address, mapped — are on the Virginia Sex Offender Registry.

Unless the law changes, the courts toss out the conviction or the governor grants a pardon, he will be on the registry until he dies. His parents and lawyers now hope to make it possible for some juveniles to get off sex offender registries.

Coker's mother, Cherri Dulaney, and Michele Sousa, the mother of the girl who now says she wrongly accused him, appeared before the Virginia State Crime Commission recently pleading for help.

"Young people like Edgar want an opportunity to get off the registry when a mistake like this is made," Dulaney said. "It was bad enough that he was locked up … because a frightened young girl lied, but to continue to ruin his life, it's inconceivable," she said.

Sousa agreed and told the commission, "Please give Edgar and those who may find themselves in a horrible situation a way to get their life back on track."

"I would never have dreamed it would be this difficult to correct a mistake in the legal justice system," she said. "I wish very much that my daughter had not accused Edgar."

According to the Virginia State Crime Commission, almost any adult — or juvenile tried as an adult — convicted of a sex offense goes on the sex offender registry where their personal information and convictions are available to the public.

Juveniles older than 13 and "adjudicated delinquent" of a sex crime in juvenile court are required to register if, as in Coker's case, the judge determines that circumstances warrant it.

Andrew K. Block, director of the Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law, said a current law permitting a wrongly convicted person to prove their innocence in the Virginia Court of Appeals applies to people "convicted" of crimes.

Juveniles, he said, are "adjudicated delinquent," not "convicted," and it is unclear if they can seek a "writ of actual innocence" based on non-DNA evidence. Also, he said, such writs cannot be sought by people who have pleaded guilty, as did Coker.

"The lack of eligibility for young people who plead guilty is particularly problematic for kids who are the least sophisticated of all criminal defendants," Block said.

Block said studies have shown juveniles are more likely to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit than adults.

State Del. Gregory D. Habeeb, R-Salem, said he will introduce legislation that would permit juveniles who pleaded guilty to crimes — which would be considered felonies in adult court — to be eligible to file for a writ of actual innocence.

"A juvenile pleads guilty sometimes for different reasons than a grown-up," Habeeb said. "We don't pass legislation for one person. But I think oftentimes one person can highlight a hole in legislation."

There are legitimate reasons not to support a change in the law, Habeeb said. For example, he said, often a prosecutor accepts a guilty plea knowing the defendant will not be able to later seek a writ of actual innocence.

But, Habeeb said, "as a very conservative Republican, my view is that it is better to err on the side of not doing a wrong to somebody, especially when it comes to kids. … This bill wouldn't make a whole bunch of felons innocent."

With the next General Assembly session coming up soon, seeking a change in the writ of actual innocence law would be a more manageable goal than trying to change the sex offender registry, he said.

Coker still might be unable to meet the high burden set to prove innocence, but at least he would have access to the process, Habeeb said.

Meanwhile, Coker's lawyers are pursuing additional remedies including appealing his conviction on the grounds that his trial lawyer did not perform up to constitutionally acceptable standards and he should be given a new trial or have his adjudication tossed.

His appeal has been rejected by a circuit court judge who said that because Coker is no longer behind bars, the court lacks jurisdiction. That ruling has been appealed, and the case will be argued before the Virginia Supreme Court on Jan. 13.

Complicating matters for Coker is that court papers indicate Coker's trial lawyer said Coker admitted having sex with the girl against her will, a development that led the lawyer to recommend Coker plead guilty to avoid trial as an adult.

Deirdre M. Enright, with the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law, said she was not at liberty to discuss the pending case in detail, but she said Coker strongly denies ever confessing wrongdoing to his lawyer.

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