NEW YORK – In a case pitting convicted sex offenders against former Gov. George Pataki, a jury decided Wednesday that the three-term governor didn't violate the criminals' rights by authorizing a program to involuntarily commit them to mental institutions after they completed their sentences.
The case stemmed from Pataki's decision in 2005 to have heath and prison officials evaluate the worst sex offenders for possible civil commitment once released from prison. The practice was halted in 2006 after a state court found that several men who were committed should have been entitled to hearings before it happened. Some remained in psychiatric institutions for years afterward.
Six of the sex offenders sued Pataki and other officials in 2008, claiming the officials had abused their authority by denying them their freedom.
The Sexually Violent Predator initiative was a "sham" attempt to "bypass the Constitution," plaintiffs' attorney Reza Rezvani said in closing arguments Monday. "You know that the Constitution applies to everybody. ... No one is saying don't lock up the bad guys. But you do it right and you're fair."
Pataki's attorney, Abbe Lowell, told the jury that the most shocking part of the case was "what the plaintiffs did, not what the defendants did."
At trial, jurors heard testimony of plaintiffs who served lengthy prison sentences for sex assaults on minors and crimes. One, Louis Massei, testified that once he was committed to psychiatric care, he and the other convicts were never given any treatment.
"We were separated from the other patients," Massei said. "We were treated like 'the experiment.'"
Pataki testified he authorized evaluations of sex offenders before they were freed as a way to protect the public, not to rob them of liberty. Defense lawyers noted that of the nearly 800 inmates examined, fewer than 200 were committed to mental institutions.
The lawsuit had alleged that Pataki and officials with the Office of Mental Health and Department of Correctional Services conspired to deprive them of their constitutional rights. But the former governor claimed he "didn't know what law was being used or what particular part of the law was being used" to implement the program, nor did he pay close attention to how it was carried out.
"I personally never had any contact with DOCS or OMH, so no, I didn't direct them directly," he said.