by Kristine Erickson
It is clear to me that every adult associated with Luke Heimlich’s case knew the 10-word “confession” on his August 2012 guilty plea agreement was coerced. He was just another boy in the continual parade of children who stand before a judge and hear the words, “Has anyone threatened to harm you or anyone else to get you to plead guilty?” To which he gave the same hollow reply that has echoed in the room thousands of times: “No, your honor.”
The court-appointed sex offender treatment provider acknowledged Luke’s assertion of innocence in every report he submitted: “Luke entered a guilty plea but maintains that he did not commit the offense.” Thankfully, this led the therapist to provide an individual treatment program, instead of requiring Luke to attend group sessions.
Luke’s therapy included completion of a “healthy living plan” focusing on all aspects of self (mental, emotional, physical, moral) and setting short and long term goals for his life. He embraced that aspect of the program, and against all odds he excelled—in school, in sports, in life. During his sophomore year, in addition to bi-weekly therapy, he participated on the debate team, played junior varsity baseball, and won a PACE award for exemplifying citizenship, pride, effort, and achievement in the classroom and the community.
Luke has been unfairly criticized for not personally notifying his schools of his legal status after his 2012 guilty plea. He had every reason to believe the court would make that notification, which is spelled out in Washington State Law [RCW 13.04.155], in Item 12F of the state’s form for a juvenile plea agreement, and on the county probation officer’s handout sheet for youth placed on SSODA probation. Luke’s responsibility was to register, which he immediately did in his Washington home county and subsequently did in Benton County, Oregon, every time he moved to a new residence in Corvallis.
If we want to drive every student on the sex offender registry to suicide, it would be hard to devise a more effective plan than to make him go through life with a scarlet letter on his forehead, personally notifying the schools wherever he goes.
A 2017 research study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School on Public Health found that children on the sex offender registry were four times more likely to attempt suicide, even as compared to a group of children who had engaged in harmful or illegal sexual behavior but who were not required to register. (The children studied were 98% male, and the average age was 15.)
“The process of subjecting children to sex offender registration and notification requirements … conveys to the child that he or she is worthless,’ says study lead Elizabeth Letourneau, PhD, a professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Mental Health and director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse.“
“Policymakers have argued that if sex offender registration improves community safety it is worth the costs associated with it, which begs the question, does registration work? Does it make communities safer? ‘The answer is a resounding no,’ says Letourneau.”
“Virtually no studies exist finding U.S. registries effective, prompting some researchers to call them pointless, many even calling them counterproductive, arguing that they increase the rate of reoffense.”
Luke successfully completed his treatment program after nine months of therapy sessions. The therapist’s discharge summary reveals the heartbreaking disconnect that amplified the injustice Luke suffered at the hands of the juvenile court. The therapist wrote: “Categorical denial is not a risk factor for sexual recidivism for juvenile sexual abusers. This has been repeatedly demonstrated in the research on juvenile sexual recidivism. In fact, there is one study that showed that those in categorical denial were at lower risk for sexual recidivism than admitters. In the adult field of sexual abuser treatment, providers are not ethically permitted to say/write that a client ‘completed’ treatment if that client maintains their denial. However, in the juvenile field of sexual abuser treatment, there is no such ethical standard due to the clear and convincing evidence that denial does not contribute to risk.”
A 2006 amendment to the Washington State adult criminal code requires a confession from the defendant in order to qualify for the probationary sex offender treatment program [RCW 9.94A.670(2)(a)]. As Luke’s therapist wrote, this is due to the belief that adults who deny the charge are more likely to reoffend. The judge in Luke’s case demanded a “confession” as if the same standard applies to juveniles. On the contrary, the therapist wrote that youth who deny the offense may be even less likely to reoffend (which makes perfect sense considering that some of the juveniles in that category of the study were probably innocent).
Even more than Luke’s guilty plea, the “confession” the judge extracted from him has served to condemn him in the eyes of the world. It’s time for juvenile court judges to catch up with current research in the field.
During his junior year in high school, Luke’s varsity baseball team was undefeated and won the 4A state title. Luke was named Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year for Washington State — an award that recognizes athletic excellence, academic achievement, and exemplary character demonstrated on and off the field. All this led to his recruitment by Oregon State University, after which he took NCAA-certified summer classes and graduated from high school early.
During the summer of 2014, he also completed his two-year probation. The transcript of his final court appearance includes the following comments by the judge: “I want to tell you how proud I am of you for completing the treatment so fast, and it’s very impressive that you’re ready to go to college. You have the scholarship, it sounds like things are going well for you, and we expect great things. Congratulations. You deserve a big round of applause.”
This part of the process went exactly the way juvenile justice is supposed to work. If a kid does everything that’s asked of him, works hard and keeps his record clean, then encourage him and try to help him succeed in life.
Luke’s record of success at OSU has been widely publicized, and I have nothing to add. I will simply say that I cannot imagine living with the burden of sex offender registration and still having the strength to set and achieve so many extraordinary goals.