Why Was This Serial Rapist Running Free?

A horrifying true crime tale of the men who commit sexual assaults and the psychologist who defends them.

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On May 21, 2015, the slain bodies of 47-year-old Sandra Sutton and her 17-year-old son, Zachary, were discovered in Clinton, Missouri. Anybody familiar with Sandra’s story knew who was responsible.

James Barton Horn made headlines a month earlier, when Sutton, his ex-girlfriend, fled from the home they once shared in Sedalia, Missouri. After the relationship turned sour, Horn had kept Sutton captive in a four-by-eight-foot wooden box for four months before she hatched her escape. Upon discovering the box, filled with human excrement and outfitted with one tiny air hole, cops issued a warrant for Horn’s arrest. After escaping from her ordeal, Sutton joined her son at a friend’s home in Clinton. On the eve of May 20, Sutton’s friends left for work. Horn, who had been following Sutton despite an alleged “manhunt” to find him, broke into the house and fatally shot both Sandra and Zachary.

Although police were unsuccessful in tracking down Horn prior to the double homicide, it didn’t take authorities long to catch him afterwards. Two days after discovering the bodies of Sandra and Zachary, police found Horn in an abandoned house nearby. After refusing to surrender, Horn was killed in a standoff with the police.

Horn was a prolific serial rapist, brutally claiming three victims before being apprehended by the FBI in 1996. So why was he running free? In the aftermath of the mother-and-son murders in Clinton, it came to light that a judge chose to release Horn ten years later, in 2007. Under the Adam Walsh Act, Horn was eligible for civil commitment—the judicial power to forcibly place someone in a mental institution. For high-risk sex offenders, it’s an alternative to releasing them back into the public. What convinced a judge to bracket Horn as a low-risk offender? He had raped and tortured three women, one of whom was pregnant. But according to court records, the judge had decided that, because Horn exclusively attacked his ex-lovers, he was unlikely to reoffend.

The presiding judge in the case was W. Earl Britt, 83, a man who had previously been embroiled in a controversy when he ruled that the civil commitment portion of the Adam Walsh Act was “unconstitutional” in U.S. v. Comstock, which made its way to the Supreme Court in 2010. SCOTUS smacked down Britt’s decision, and ruled that taking sex offenders off the streets indefinitely was absolutely constitutional.

It’s hard to grasp how a judge could interpret the law in such a sinister manner, why he would knowingly liberate a serial rapist. Maybe Britt, who’d been practicing law since 1958, truly believes that marital rape is not a crime: After all, it was not outlawed in his home state of North Carolina until 1993 (they were the last state in the union to criminalize it; South Dakota was the first, in 1975).   

But more likely, his judgment may have been swayed by the testimony of Massachusetts-based forensic psychologist, Dr. Joseph Plaud, who has testified on behalf of innumerable sex offenders in his career, arguing that rapists and child molesters are not necessarily repeat offenders. It’s easy to reach conclusions that the offender will be dangerous if free, Plaud was quoted as saying, in online blog, the Democrat and Chronicle. “It’s like saying apple pie is good. You’re swimming with the tide,” he said, claiming that his assessments have been accurate 95 percent of the time. “The vast majority of them have not reoffended,” he has claimed.

Because, to no one’s surprise, James Barton Horn was a proven repeat offender. And yet, Plaud testified that,  “given that his victims have been his intimate adult partners, [Horn’s] sexual-offense history points to the conclusion of low present-day risk.” Was Plaud suggesting that rape is permissible in the aftermath of a breakup? And worse, that sexual battery comes with a vampire law caveat: Invite them in once, and they can return whenever they please?

Not surprisingly, the murders in Clinton by James Barton Horn, triggered a swift backlash against Judge Britt, with people calling for his resignation for permitting Horn’s 2011 release.

Horn was perhaps the most explosive example of Dr. Joseph Plaud’s diagnostic failures, but this case not an isolated incident. Plaud testified on behalf of Essie L. Billingslea, a convicted serial rapist. “It is my judgment he can understand and control his sexual behavior; he is not likely to reoffend at this point,” he stated in the 2013 case. Billingslea was released. The following year, Billingslea broke into a woman’s home and brutally sexually assaulted her.

Maggie Mulvihill—a Nieman fellow and the co-founder of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting—is the author of a 2004 profile of Plaud for the Boston Herald, in which she discovered that serial rapist David Partridge was freed after Plaud recommended his release. Patridge went on to assault an 18-year-old woman. The same article reports that Plaud unsuccessfully recommended the release of Antonio Mederos, claiming he was not sexually dangerous. In addition to raping four young girls, Mederos had also raped his 14-year-old son. Plaud also testified on behalf of James Porter, the Catholic priest who molested over 100 children.

In fact, Plaud has made a career out of being an “expert witness,” as someone with an expertise on the study of sex offenders. It is his job as an expert witness to not be biased or lend their opinions to whomever signs the check. An expert witness must give their opinion based on scientific reasoning, and facts.

Yet, out of out of all of his cases, Plaud has only recommended the civil commitment of one sex offender. That individual, Jeffrey Shields, had exclusively chosen male victims. The judge disagreed with Plaud’s testimonial and had Shields committed regardless.

What is the basis of Dr. Plaud’s “scientific reasoning” that he uses to determine the recidivism of sex offenders? It’s called “actuarial diagnosis” (as opposed to clinical diagnosis). It’s a scoring system based on several questions and answers that gathers past information about the offender, to establish the risk of recidivism. Many have dismissed this methodology as dubious, including the judge presiding over the case of Jeffrey Shields, who said, “I afforded [actuarial diagnosis] little weight in my final analysis,” after reviewing Plaud’s methods.

The questions posed to patients through actuarial diagnosis reflect an uncomfortable agenda. If the victim is male? One point. Never been married? One point. Raped a stranger? One point. The higher the points, the greater the risk of reoffense.

By the standards of actuarial diagnosis, if a man rapes a male stranger, he is considered more dangerous than a man who has raped his daughter.

Homophobia has an uncomfortable role in both Plaud’s assessments, and the criteria of actuarial diagnosis. Plaud has previously blamed the actions of sex offenders on “homosexual urges,” as he did in the case of Peter Newman, a Christian camp counselor who molested dozens of young boys. Plaud said that Newman was gay, but not a pedophile. And Shields, the only man Plaud determined as sexually dangerous, only chose male victims.

The same “expertise” reasoned that Horn only torture-raped his exes when they dumped him. This explanation was given, as if torture-raping your ex somehow made it more acceptable. Neither Plaud nor the judge seems to have considered that most breakups don’t end in violence or rape.

There is a scattering of unverified, yet uncomfortable whispers about Plaud online. Most of it is confined to blogs or forums. According to one poster, Dr. Plaud was heavily sanctioned in 2004 by the Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) for “ethics violations,” and later resigned. I called the ATSA for confirmation. A spokesperson informed me that they could not confirm nor deny these reports.

But while some courts have dismissed Plaud’s use of “actuarial diagnosis” and interpretation of the results, others, like Judge Britt, have allowed it to sway the verdict, as in the case of James Barton Horn. “[Horn’s] sexual offense history has been confined to very specific circumstances relating to the unwanted end of an intimate relationship … The court credits the reasoning of Dr. Plaud with regard to this issue.”

Advocates of actuarial diagnosis may throw up their hands, and blame the stats. But statistics are flawed, especially when it comes to rape and sexual abuse. According to the Rape, Abuse, And Incest National Network (RAINN), 68 percent of sex crimes are not reported to the police. When a woman is raped, she has to face accusations regarding her wardrobe, and persuade the world at large that she wasn’t “asking for it.” From this case, it’s devastatingly clear that if a consensual relationship once existed, subsequent rape is then “confined” to the context of that relationship. Are we supposed to accept that a woman’s agency is infinitely tethered to anyone with whom she has shared an intimate relationship?

No means no. Unless, according to the ostensible logic of someone like Plaud, you’ve ever said yes. Unless the victim is male. A male victim seldom elicits public vitriol. Or causes people to question his motivation.

The case of James Barton Horn set a disturbing precedent, and it reflects the misogynistic and homophobic slant that has plagued the mental-health industry since its inception. If we can take anything away from the tragic deaths of Sandra and Zachary, it’s that we must insist that lawmakers and mental-health professionals recognize the severity of rape, in any context.

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