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Fourth Circuit Affirms Ruling That Diagnosis of Intellectual Development Disorder Does Not Qualify as ‘Sexually Dangerous Person’ Under Federal Civil Commitment Statute

by Christopher Zoukis

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling that a man civilly committed under 18 U.S.C.S. § 4247 (a)(7), part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (“Act”), was no longer a “sexually dangerous person.”

As a result of the April 10, 2018, ruling, 62-year-old Walter Wooden was ordered immediately released.

Wooden, who was first arrested for a sex crime when he was 16, suffered from a limited intellectual capacity. He molested several young boys in his teens and 20s and was convicted of a multitude of sex crimes. His last conviction resulted in a 25-year prison sentence, from which he was paroled in 2002. After violating parole and serving another prison sentence, the Government moved to civilly commit Wooden.

In order to do so, the Government would have to prove that Wooden was “sexually dangerous,” which the Act defines as “suffer[ing] from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder as a result of which he would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.” The district court initially refused to order commitment, but after several appellate reversals, it certified Wooden as sexually dangerous and committed him.

In 2014, counsel for Wooden hired two experts to evaluate his condition. Dr. Joseph Plaud and Dr. Frederick Winsmann concluded that Wooden suffered from Intellectual Development Disorder (“IDD”), which was previously known as mental retardation. Both doctors believed that previous experts had failed to recognize and diagnose Wooden’s IDD; instead, they incorrectly diagnosed him as a pedophile. With Plaud and Winsmann’s opinions in hand, Wooden’s counsel moved the court to discharge Wooden from confinement.

The district court took testimony from both of Wooden’s experts, two of the Government’s experts, and Wooden himself. Winsmann, who is a professor at Harvard Medical School and a leading expert on the issue of volitional control in sex offenders, testified to Wooden’s IDD diagnosis. He said previous experts had incorrectly identified Wooden as a preferential pedophile, but he was properly diagnosed as an intellectually disabled person whose sexual offenses were opportunistic, the result of a significant mismatch between his chronological age and his emotional and cognitive age. Both Winsmann and Plaud testified that Wooden did not have trouble controlling his behavior at this stage in his life.

The Government’s experts, Dr. Hy Malinek and Dr. Heather Ross, both testified that Wooden was a pedophile with low volitional control. Although Malinek agreed that Wooden had intellectual and adaptive deficits, he said Wooden’s behavior was not simply “boundary-violating” behavior, but “aggressive, persistent, predatory sexual conduct with prepubescent children.”

Malinek testified that Wooden was “among the most dangerous sex offenders that I have evaluated.”

The district court highly credited the testimony of Winsmann and Plaud. The court considered Malinek and Ross’ testimony but found it “unreliable” and not credible, remarking that the doctors “relied too heavily upon historical criminal behavior to justify their conclusions that he is currently sexually dangerous.” As such, the lower court found that Wooden suffered from IDD, not pedophilia and that IDD does not qualify as a “serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder” under the Act.

The district court also found that Wooden would not “have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.” The court rejected Malinek’s assertion that Wooden was one of the most dangerous sex offenders he had evaluated, stating that Malinek’s “inflated conclusion flatly contradicts the picture of Mr. Wooden as the court finds him today: 60 years old, physically and mentally handicapped, and expressing credible resentment over his past actions.”

Having concluded that Wooden no longer qualified as a sexually dangerous person, the district court ordered him immediately released. The Government appealed and was granted an emergency stay of the district court’s order. Reviewing the lower court’s factual findings for clear error, the Fourth Circuit found none, affirmed the ruling, and ordered Wooden’s release.

The key to the appellate court’s affirmance was the reasoning, supported by the evidence, supplied by the district court for its ruling. On appeal, the Government repeatedly urged the appellate court to substitute its judgment for the district court’s. The appellate court refused to do so while noting the difficulty presented by cases such as Wooden’s.

“The question of whether a person is sexually dangerous is by no means an easy one,” wrote the Court, “and the potential consequences of an incorrect decision are steep—a loss of liberty if an inmate is wrongly found to be sexually dangerous or unspeakable harm to a child if an inmate is wrongly released.”

“Under our judicial system, however, it is the district court, not this court, that is charged with sorting out the factual issues and answering the ultimate question,” the Court continued. “In this case, the district court was presented with two plausible theories of the case, both of which were supported by facially credible expert evidence. Regardless of whether we would have reached the same conclusion had we been the factfinders, the factual findings of the district court ‘represent a permissible and reasonable interpretation of the evidence presented at the hearing.’ Under these circumstances, we are constrained to affirm the district court’s order requiring Wooden’s release.” See: United States v. Wooden, 887 F.3d 591 (4th Cir. 2018). 

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