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Judge: Sex offender to remain free _ for now

A convicted rapist who faces nearly two dozen counts of sex assault but was released from custody last year under a legal loophole in Utah law won't be civilly committed to a state hospital and will remain free, a judge said Wednesday.

Lonnie Hyrum Johnson, 39, is charged in Utah with 20 sodomy and sex assault counts after police say he had inappropriate contact with his stepdaughter and her cousin over five years beginning in 2001. He previously pleaded guilty in 2006 to raping a 16-year-old girl in Washington state and is now a registered sex offender.

He has been free since last year when 4th District Judge James R. Taylor ordered him released from a state hospital under a legal loophole in Utah law that doesn't allow the judge to consider Johnson's pending criminal case when determining whether he is a danger to society.

The judge also said at the time that the circumstances of the 2006 rape conviction in Washington state weren't substantive enough to outweigh the opinions of some medical experts who found he was incompetent to participate in his own defense, and likely couldn't be made well enough to ever stand trial, making further treatment futile.

Prosecutors have since been fighting to get Johnson off the streets and re-committed for treatment.

A daylong competency hearing Wednesday in Provo, about 50 miles south of Salt Lake City, ended with Johnson walking free again.

"What can I do? I can order him to submit to a reevaluation in a year, but I don't see the point. It's pretty bleak," Taylor said when issuing his ruling.

He told Deputy Utah County District Attorney Craig Johnson, who is not related to the accused, that the prosecutor could seek Johnson's involuntarily commitment again after May 8 when a new law takes effect that allows a judge to consider previous "harmful sexual conduct" as grounds for civil commitment, such as the Washington state case.

Until then, the judge indicated, his hands were tied.

Johnson, the prosecutor, conceded that Lonnie Johnson is likely incompetent to stand trial now, but said he would seek to have him forcibly committed under the new law.

"It's still an uphill battle," Johnson said. "But we have another tool in our arsenal against Mr. Johnson to protect society."

The Utah Legislature passed the bill in March in response to outrage over Johnson's release.

"We just want to be able to say, if somebody is very likely to commit harmful sexual conduct, and they are mentally ill, and the mental illness is linked to the conduct, then we believe that's grounds for civil commitment," the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said at the time he proposed the legislation.

During the competency hearing Wednesday, two doctors testified Johnson remains unfit for trial and that no amount of treatment could make him better.

"The brain cells are not there," Patrick Panos, a psychologist and University of Utah social sciences professor, testified. "There's nothing for medication to impact."

Another doctor expressed the same opinion.

Two other doctors, however, differed in their diagnosis.

A doctor who had evaluated him at the Utah State Hospital insisted Johnson was making progress.

"We would like another chance to restore his competency" psychiatrist Peter Heinbecker testified.

Eric Nielsen, a clinical social worker who also evaluated Johnson, said he found some of his symptoms "suspect."

Doctors say Johnson suffers from an unspecified cognitive disorder that appears to affect his memory and ability to make decisions and understand his actions.

However, Nielsen said he believed Johnson might be faking it to some extent.

Johnson was charged in Utah in 2007, but a year later, Taylor deemed him incompetent for trial due to the cognitive disorder. Johnson spent about two and a half years at the state hospital while doctors worked to restore his competency, but last year they said he had shown little improvement and likely could never be made fit enough to participate in his own defense.

Taylor then reluctantly freed him, noting he didn't believe state civil commitment laws were broad enough at the time to detain him.

Johnson then moved to Oregon. He has never entered a plea to the Utah charges and his family has maintained the allegations are false. He declined comment Wednesday as he left the courtroom.

Christy Danner, the mother of one of the two victims in Utah, said she feels the system has let her daughter down.

Danner, whose daughter gave her permission to speak publicly about the case, said her deepest fear is that another child might be harmed.

"I don't know that he's crazy enough that he can't stand trial, but he needs to be off the streets," Danner said Wednesday.

___

Skoloff reported from Salt Lake City.

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