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United States v. Wooden, No. 11-7226

Decided: September 6, 2012

This case concerned a government petition for civil commitment of a convicted pedophile under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (the Act).  The Fourth Circuit remanded the district court’s denial of the government’s petition for commitment.  The Court found that the district court committed reversible error by ignoring evidence of the defendant’s ongoing pedophilia and “serious difficulty” of reoffending as defined under the Act.  Finally, the district court improperly held that the application of the Act to defendant violated his equal protection and due process rights.

Walter Wooden, who is cognitively impaired, was twice imprisoned for improper sexual acts with a minor.  The first conviction was due to six arrests for improper sex acts with a minor while Wooden was under 18.  Wooden was convicted the second time after being paroled in 1980.  He was paroled in 2002 for the second conviction and ordered to undergo long-term sex offender treatment and testing.  In 2005, Wooden admitted to having deviant sexual thoughts about children and to hiring himself out as a babysitter to local children.  He also admitted to sexual contact with a young boy and attempted sexual contact with a 7 year old boy in his neighborhood.  Wooden was not sure if the latter attack was a dream or not.  Wooden was imprisoned again for violating paroled.  While in prison, Wooden wrote a Christmas card to the 7 year old boy.  The government instituted civil commitment proceedings and hired two experts, who analyzed Wooden and prepared a report.  This report had several actuarial numbers that showed Wooden was likely to reoffend.  Wooden’s expert testified that Wooden did not suffer from a “volitional impairment” required by the Act, and that his pedophilia had subsided over time.  Wooden’s expert also stated that due to numerous factors, Wooden was not a danger to reoffend.  Finally, Wooden’s own testimony revealed he felt bad about molesting children and knew that it was wrong.  However, this testimony contradicted his earlier testimony where he stated that young children wanted to have sex with him.  The district court gave more weight to Wooden’s expert and found that he did not suffer from a volitional impairment, and that under the Act, the government had to prove Wooden was dangerous, in that there was a 50% or more chance he would reoffend.

The Fourth Circuit first stated that the Act is not open to a due process or equal protection challenge due to a previous ruling.  The Court stated that despite the deference due factual findings, the lower court ignored plausible evidence to the contrary.  While the lower court could weigh which expert was more credible, it gave no weight to contrary evidence, and its finding that Wooden did not suffer from pedophilia was against the preponderance of the evidence.  The Court had a similar ruling regarding Wooden’s likelihood of re-offense.  The Court made sure to say that the Act does not require a 50% or “dangerousness” standard, but merely a “significant difficulty” in returning to society without reoffending.  The Court went on to say that the lower court should have given more weight to the government’s experts, and most importantly, Wooden’s own contradictory testimony.  In light of the circumstances, the Court found that the preponderance of the evidence showed Wooden was suffering from a “volitional impairment” and would have a “serious difficulty” returning to society.

Full Opinion

–Jonathan Riddle