CHARLESTON — Mandatory prison terms for pedophiles re-entered the picture Wednesday, pacifying Republican lawmakers and probably setting the stage for approval next week by an ad hoc panel on the hotly debated rewrite of the proposed “Logan’s Law.”

A committee met again via telephone conference call and plans another go-round next Wednesday, one that could bring the consensus that Gov. Joe Manchin says is vital before a special legislative session is called.

Manchin has said he prefers to deal with the stalled measure in the May 21-23 interims, but only if lawmakers are on board with the proposal since a division could only lead to more squabbling and another gridlock that serves only to waste taxpayers’ money.

“I think we’re getting closer,” said Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, who initially called for a tougher law to deal with sexual offenders preying on children last September.

“I’m very optimistic. We’re moving closer to having a good bill.”

Even Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, a critic of mandatory sentencing, appeared willing to concede that point in Wednesday’s session, Sobonya said.

A week ago while visiting Beckley, Manchin said he had no problems in imposing mandatory sentencing.

“I think a governor trumps a senator,” Sen. Russ Weeks, R-Raleigh, said.

The tentative measure also would impose a life-without-mercy sentence if a child victimized by a sexual offender is slain.

Sobonya disclosed a survey of the sexual registry in 55 counties showing that 954 of the names appearing on it targeted victims under 12.

“That’s 42 percent of the total amount of sex offenders in West Virginia,” she said. “Almost half are crimes against children. Don’t tell me we don’t have a problem. And those are only the people who have been caught.

“The reason we did this (survey) is that we kept hearing at the very beginning this was not a problem.”

“Logan’s Law” was the name applied to the revision of Manchin’s original bill after Logan Goodall, a 2-year-old Putnam County toddler beaten to death after relatives said he was sexually abused.

That bill cleared the House after it was narrowed to focus on pedophiles, but died on the last night of the session after an intense Senate debate. Kessler felt it unfairly would brand and imprison teenage boys engaging in consensual sex with minor girls.

A mandatory 25-year term would be imposed in the newest draft, but only if certain provisions are met, and under the proposed Section 61-8b-9a, some tweaking might be in order, Sobonya said.

An offender must be at least 18 and the victim under 12. Force must be used in an offense, and the person must be armed with a weapon and threaten to use it. In addition, the victim would have to be removed from one place to another and not released in a safe place.

But Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, raised the prospects of a case involving a 40-year-old man with a 12-year-old victim, in which kidnapping and weapons weren’t factors, and, in lieu of force, the offender convinced the child the sexual act was normal and consent was given.

In such a scenario, he was advised, the mandatory sentencing wouldn’t apply.

Another change in the newest draft presented by Manchin’s legal counsel, Joe Ward, strikes the term “violent” in defining predators.

House Majority Leader Rick Staton, D-Wyoming, an attorney, told of representing a client who signed up for the sex offender registry but wound up serving 16 days in jail because the paperwork wasn’t handled in a timely fashion, Sobonya said.

Weeks suggested persons registering be given a receipt immediately by State Police to acknowledge the sign-up, and the panel “thought that was doable,” Sobonya said.

While it isn’t in draft form yet, Weeks and Ward planned to discuss the prospect of adding a clause to allow under-age victims to testify via live remote television hook-up to spare them the ordeal of confronting accused predators in a courtroom.

“Ward liked the concept of video testimony for children in such cases,” the senator said. “You could cross-examine them through live, closed-circuit television.”

Weeks termed as “ridiculous” the concern Kessler voiced Tuesday about the need for a new law, saying he learned from police that two girls under 12 were raped recently in Beckley.

After huddling with Weeks, Lane and Delegate Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, Sobonya added, “We all seem to feel we have a comfort level with the draft bill. We just need some tweaking of some things.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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