At sixteen, Ricky Blackman was fairly typical of teen-age boys. He loved sports, especially basketball and football, and played them well enough to have realistic hopes for a scholarship. He liked socializing and hanging out with his friends. And girls—of course there were always the girls.
His Middle American upbringing produced unsurprising ambitions. He dreamed of serving his country in the Navy after school, and ultimately of a career in law enforcement. He was, by all accounts, a healthy and well adjusted young man.
Skip ahead three years, and you’ll find Ricky and his life have changed radically. He takes private instruction in web design because he isn’t welcome on a campus. He no longer trusts the law he once wanted to serve, and, when in the presence of young women, he panics and withdraws. In fact, his life, once so full of promise and hope, is now little more than a daily struggle to survive, and a challenge to even find reasons for doing so.
While Ricky’s view of the world has changed since his younger days, it is nothing compared to the way the world’s view of Ricky has changed. He has become the ultimate pariah and outcast. He is, at least in the eyes of most, pernicious persona non grata; human refuse hardly worthy of life itself.
It all started before his seventeenth birthday. Ricky was at a local hang out for teens and met a girl there. Amanda was from his area, said she was fifteen years old and they seemed to have much in common. They began seeing each other, and eventually had sex on two occasions.
The encounters would undo the rest of his life.
Like many young people trying to impress someone they like, Amanda lied to Ricky about her age. She later told Ricky’s mother, Mary Duval, that she was only fourteen, and pled with her not to let Ricky know. Mary promptly told her son of the confession, and he cut off the romance immediately. They found out later that she still wasn’t being entirely honest.
Later Amanda, a runaway, became involved with the police, who discovered her prior ties with Ricky. She admitted the sexual relationship to the police during questioning. She also admitted that she had lied to Ricky about her age. After evaluating the situation, Amanda’s parents weren’t interested in pressing charges and the police weren’t interested in making an arrest. Until, that is, the Dallas County (Iowa) District Attorney’s office got wind of the case.
Shortly after Ricky turned seventeen, he was questioned by the police. His mother was present, and it was her instinct to remove Ricky from the interview. But she had just undergone surgery on her eyes and was disoriented due to the post-operative medications she was taking, so she allowed Ricky’s then-stepfather to handle things. Unfortunately, the stepfather wanted the matter quickly resolved, and signed a waiver for the police to question him without legal counsel.
The police had something they wanted Ricky to sign as well.
It was a simple statement that he had, in fact, had sexual relations with Amanda. Ricky was apprehensive, but he signed. It was, after all, the truth. And in Ricky’s world, the truth served an honest person well.
“Sorry to tell you,” the police officer told Ricky after he had signed the statement. “Amanda admitted she lied to you about her real age, but she was only thirteen.”
It probably wasn’t the tactics Ricky envisioned, when he thought of becoming a police officer: Get a kid to sign a confession, and then tell him what he just confessed to. Ricky’s naiveté took a hard blow. But it was only the first of many times that the real world would land on him like a Mack Truck.
The officer told him that the case would be sent back to the D.A., and that it might come to nothing since Amanda had confessed to lying about her age. He also advised him, in a rare moment of clarity and honesty from the system, that it could go either way.
The Arrest Made the Papers
Ten days later, Ricky was handcuffed in front of his friends and taken to jail. He was charged as an adult with two counts of third degree sexual abuse, a felony. In an almost artistic manipulation of timing and the system, police and prosecutors used laws applying only to juveniles to garner evidence and a confession, and then used it all to charge him criminally as an adult.
He was threatened with twenty years in prison (more time than he’d yet been alive), but that was only the beginning of a two-pronged assault on his life. When the arrest made the papers, complete with Ricky’s full name, address, and the nature of the charges against him, the community in which he had lived and thrived turned on him in an instant.
When Ricky and Mary went food shopping, cashiers in one line at a local grocery store refused to check them out, forcing them to go to another line while other customers glared. His younger brother, who was nine at the time, was badgered and humiliated at school.
Duval read the writing on the wall, and immediately made plans to take Ricky and his brother to Oklahoma in hopes that they could put the matter behind them. Unfortunately, the move would have to wait until the Dallas County Prosecutor’s Office was done with him.
That process began with a rare, upbeat moment that seemed to promise a partial reprieve. The prosecution offered a deal with Ricky that almost seemed reasonable, given the circumstances. He would plead guilty to one count of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child, a class D felony, which would be expunged from the records if he satisfied the terms of his two-year probation. He would not have to state a felony on job applications, and, because of the adjudication, he would not be placed on a sex offenders’ registry.
It seemed like the best offer possible, all things considered, and Ricky agreed to the plea.
Ricky and his mother took their seats in the courtroom. Then, just minutes before the hearing was scheduled to begin, the state appointed attorney advised them that there had been a recent change in Iowa law.
Any plea arrangement Ricky made would be contingent on being placed on a sex abuser registry for ten years. Both Ricky and his mother erupted in tears at the news, causing a commotion in the courtroom. It took some time for them to compose themselves.
The “recent” change in the statute had happened, they would discover, nearly a year earlier, but right now, Ricky had just moments to decide whether or not to take the deal.
He didn’t want to be placed on the registry. He didn’t think it was right. But to fight it was risking two decades behind bars; a place where young men, especially those not hardened by criminal life, were sure to find out what real sexual deviance and assault are all about.
It was a double blow for Duval, who had lost her eyesight entirely, just five weeks before the hearing. Now she could lose her son.
Ricky took the deal, but almost ran into another snag with the court. The prosecution wanted Ricky to state on the record that he had lured the girl to his home for the purpose of having sex. The request was clear. In essence they wanted Ricky to commit perjury, a real crime, so they could have on the record a phony allocution to something he never did. Blackman, with courage almost unimaginable for his age and the circumstances, refused. He told the court that the sex was what they both wanted, and he wouldn‘t make a statement to the contrary.
They entered his statement into the record and closed the case. Ricky had received the adjudication, and they were now free to move away from Iowa.
It was something Ricky couldn’t wait to do. The promise of getting away and making a fresh start almost made the situation bearable.
A Fresh Start
The state of Oklahoma, and some of its citizens, had other plans.
They’d had no idea when they moved, but Oklahoma law required Ricky to register as a sexual offender for life. And because of the age difference between him and Amanda, he would be listed as a Level Three Offender, which labels him as violent and dangerous, and his crime as “aggravated.” He was placed on the sexual offender registry, and, as a result, Ricky’s life has been affected in ways that most of us cannot imagine.
Since moving to Oklahoma he has been kicked out of school, ousted from public parks, and verbally abused by neighbors and strangers. One neighbor shouted obscenities and videotaped him whenever he stepped outside his door. The same man came to their home and told Mary Duval he would not quit bothering them till she took her “child rapist” away. He was not interested in the facts surrounding Ricky’s case. He had seen everything he needed to know about Ricky Blackman on the “Offender Registry.”
Ricky cannot live or go within 2,000 feet of schools, parks or any other establishments where children are known to be present, and this forces him to live as far from town as possible. It also means he cannot attend his younger brother’s football games, or go almost anywhere where he could make and maintain friendships. He cannot even attend church unless he informs the clergy there that he is a sex offender and gets their permission.
Now that Ricky is off probation, his younger brother can have his friends in the home while Ricky is there. But most parents don’t want their children in a home with a registered sex offender. And the reality is that children around Ricky do present a dangerous vulnerability… for Ricky. Any allegation against him, even the most patently false, could have disastrous results.
His probation officer had him dismissed from the school system, saying, according to Duval, “He is a liability to them.” He was denied G.E.D classes because they were offered on a school campus, and the State Board of Education denied him online classes because he was on the registry.
Ricky was eventually allowed to take G.E.D. classes, at a local police station.
He now lives his life in near solitude, helping to take care of his mother and trying to sort out how he is going to make something of the rest of his life. He had a job in a fabrication plant, but was “laid off” when his employers discovered his history. Effectively in prison, Ricky will remain that way for the rest of his life unless something changes.
Ricky and his mother are both involved in trying to effect those changes. They have both taken the story public, and Duval has an on-line radio program to raise awareness of what the registry actually does. She has managed to get the story covered by some television stations and newspapers. She also has an internet petition demanding changes in the laws. Primary among those demands is that the states recognize the difference between sexual predation and consensual sex between teens.
In many places, including Oklahoma, the law sees no such difference, and consequently makes no legal distinction between someone who lures a child into a car and rapes them and someone like Ricky Blackman.
The Court Knew Better
It was a difference, however, that the prosecution in his case was apparently able to see, even as they held twenty years in prison over the young man’s head in order to coerce a guilty plea. It was the prosecution that recommended to the court that Blackman receive two years probation with deferred adjudication. In that recommendation, they advised the court that this course of action would be sufficient to rehabilitate the defendant.
One only need consult a mental health professional with experience dealing with sexual offenders to learn that the nearly universal perception is that recidivism for sexual offenders is high. In my considerable time in the field, it was the general consensus of clinicians that predators were untreatable, and that incarceration was the best option. (There is research that disputes all this, but in Blackman’s case, it was always perceptions that guided events, not reality.)
That being said, prosecutors are generally less generous than psychotherapists. With their recommendation to the court, the prosecution openly acceded to what everyone else in that courtroom already knew.
Ricky Blackman was not a sexual predator.
Ricky Blackman was just a kid that had sex with a girlfriend he thought was a year younger than him.
Ricky Blackman had no business being there in the first place.
At this point, though, it was too late. Blackman was caught up in a system largely devised by politicians clamoring to quell public fears about the safety of children. Fanning the flames of public outrage, and sometimes lighting them, lawmakers run for office against each other on platforms largely consisting of “tough on crime” one-upmanship. One ever more draconian measure after another is offered up as a sales pitch to a panic-ridden, woefully ignorant public that will sign on to whatever sounds the most extreme.
The result is laws that not only fail to protect our children, but in the case of Blackman and others, have actually started destroying them. Elected politicians, like prosecutors and judges, fearful of being seen as soft on crime, force people like Ricky through the legal gauntlet without compunction. They have become robotic assassins, creating unthinkable collateral damage in a war that is supposedly being waged in the public’s best interest.
Meanwhile, children are no safer on the streets than they have ever been.
His Whole Life in Front of Him
It is perhaps fitting to point to the silver linings in this story. Duval, the loss of her sight notwithstanding, has emerged as a dogged and tireless advocate for her son, and for bringing problems with the sexual offenders registry to the public’s attention.
Ricky has found some focus for the future as well, though it took some hits and misses. He wanted to get a law degree and work to change the system for the better, but he won’t be allowed to practice law anywhere, because of the registry. Now he takes private lessons in web design, a profession suited for someone who has little reason to leave the house. He also wants to reach out to young people and caution them about the hazards and consequences of teen sex. The jury remains out on whether that can ever happen.
These are thin consolations, lending neither redemption nor solace. Even if Mary Duval had not lost her eyesight, she would never again see the Ricky she knew before all this happened. Her life is, and will be, consumed with trying to find justice for her son. She openly admits this may never happen.
Ricky, at nineteen, is supposed to have his whole life in front of him. When he should be looking forward to the time he will marry and have children of his own, his path looks to be marked by a single set of footprints. His ideas on women are not what they used to be.
“I don’t trust them,” he says. “When I see one looking at me I just walk away.”
Still, he is a young man with a message, albeit forged in the fires of adversity. It is a message that assaults the complacency in which we all too often and too easily find comfort.
“Anybody who looks at the registry should not judge people just for being there,” he says, “There are lots of people that don’t belong. People like me. There are even people that had to pee so bad they went outside and the next thing you know someone takes a picture with a cell phone and they end up on the registry too.”
Right alongside the child rapists.
Little at this point would ameliorate the damage done to this family. The Kafkaesque tempest that overtook them three years ago still darkens every horizon and pummels the simplicity out of life that they used to take for granted. It rattles their doors and windows, as though trying to shake loose the last of their dignity. And it has swept away hope for the future, leaving behind only the solemn, desperate need for peace.
We love to think that justice is blind. But we also pray that those who administer that justice are people of vision. When systems become so twisted that the letter of the law strangles its spirit, then justice cannot exist. It will die as surely as the dreams of a teen-age boy when the world caves in around him.