Wendy Whitaker’s case highlights problems with Georgia’s Sex Offender Registry
September 17, 2010 -- Judge Roger W. Dunaway, Jr. of the McDuffie County Superior Court has signed an order releasing Georgia resident Wendy Whitaker from her obligation to register as a sex offender. Ms. Whitaker is on Georgia’s sex offender registry for engaging in a single act of consensual oral sex as a teenager with another teenager. Ms. Whitaker served as the first named plaintiff in Whitaker v. Perdue, a federal class action lawsuit brought by the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) that challenges residency restrictions imposed on people on Georgia’s sex offender registry. She has been required to register as a sex offender for the last 12 years.
In the order, Judge Dunaway found “by a preponderance of the evidence that Ms. Whitaker does not pose a substantial risk of perpetrating any future dangerous sexual offense,” and released Ms. Whitaker from all sex offender registration requirements under Georgia law. This petition to the court was made possible by 2010 changes to the law that created a practical process for certain individuals to apply to be released from the registry.
“We are grateful that the Court recognized that Ms. Whitaker has never posed a threat to anyone and does not belong on the sex offender registry,” said Sarah Geraghty, Senior Attorney at SCHR.
Wendy Whitaker’s offense happened twelve years ago, just after she had turned 17. The other student was three weeks short of his 16th birthday and both were sophomores in high school. For this single act of consensual oral sex, Ms. Whitaker was arrested and charged with the crime of sodomy. If Ms. Whitaker had committed the same act that led to her conviction today, she would not have to register as a sex offender at all. Without this week’s intervention from the Court, she would have had to register as a sex offender for life, continue to have her picture posted on Georgia Bureau of Investigations’ (GBI) website, and comply with all sex offender residence restrictions and other conditions that treat her as if she was a predator, when there is absolutely no basis in fact for that treatment.
Ms. Whitaker’s situation has been extensively covered by the press over the last four years. The Economist, CNN, New York Times, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Associated Press and dozens of Georgia affiliates have all highlighted the harshness and absurdity of her ongoing punishment in light of the relatively common nature of her underlying conduct.
“I am so relieved that this horrible rollercoaster is finally ending,” says Wendy Whitaker. “For years I’ve lived at my wit’s end and in a constant state of stress because I never know what’s going to happen to my family and our home.”
Ms. Whitaker is now 31. She was forced from her home in Harlem, GA in 2006 because its proximity to a child care center violated the law. She subsequently moved from residence to residence, paying mortgage on her Harlem home and rent for other residences. In early 2008, Ms. Whitaker returned to her home in Harlem, believing that since she owned her home she had a right to reside there pursuant to the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision in Mann v. Ga. Dep’t of Corr. In July 2008, however, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office again ordered Ms. Whitaker to vacate her residence within 72 hours because it is within 1,000 feet of a church. SCHR intervened and secured an injunction halting the eviction.
“We hope that the General Assembly will continue to move away from poorly drafted, ineffective laws and instead adopt evidence-based strategies that actually protect women and children.” states Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of SCHR. “Both the passage of the 2010 legislative reforms and Wendy’s release from the registry are steps in the right direction towards making right the many wrongs created by Georgia’s hastily passed sex offender laws.”