Fallen Angel

Angela Coffel, the first woman in Missouri deemed a sexually violent predator, is locked up despite overwhelming evidence that she isn't one.

After nearly two years, Angel left gang life, weary of beatings from her boyfriend. With no place else to go and still yearning for affection from her parents, Angel moved back with her parents in Foley: "I never turned against my parents, no matter how bad they treated me, no matter how bad I was getting my ass beat."

Missouri's Sexually Violent Predator Act went into effect Jan. 1, 1999, with the goal of preventing rapists, child molesters and pedophiles from reoffending by keeping them locked up after their original criminal sentence. The bill was modeled on legislation pioneered in Kansas, whose 1994 statute was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997. In that case, the high court said that Kansas could civilly commit Leroy Hendricks as a sexually violent predator because he would be a threat to society if he was released from prison. Hendricks confessed to molesting numerous children as far back as 1955. The year after the Supreme Court put its stamp of approval on the law, Missouri's General Assembly passed its own version, with the support of the state attorney general's office. In Missouri, sexually violent crimes include not only forcible rape but statutory rape and sodomy, child molestation, sexual assault and deviate sexual assault. Although called "violent" sex crimes, it is not necessary for the victim to have been beaten, hit or threatened by a deadly weapon for a transgression to be labeled as such.

Jennifer Silverberg
Angela Coffel, 25, spends her days cut off from the world -- except for state employees. "They say that staff members can't be your friends, 'cause it's overstepping the boundaries," she says. "So who in the fuck am I supposed to get close to?"
Jennifer Silverberg
Angela Coffel, 25, spends her days cut off from the world -- except for state employees. "They say that staff members can't be your friends, 'cause it's overstepping the boundaries," she says. "So who in the fuck am I supposed to get close to?"

In addition to requiring the original crime to be one listed as sexually violent, the law states that the person must have a "mental abnormality" that makes it "more likely than not" that the person will engage in a sexually predatory act in the future. The attorney general must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person meets the definition in a civil trial. A judge or unanimous jury ultimately decides whether the "sexually violent predator" label fits.

Thanks to Rebecca Woody's report, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon was now scrutinizing Angela Coffel. Under the law, Nixon's office was required to send Woody's findings to a five-member multidisciplinary panel for assessment. The panel that reviewed Angel's case included four people with mental-health backgrounds and a victims' advocate from the Department of Corrections. On June 1, 2000, the panel refused by a vote of 4-1 to label Angel a sexually violent offender. The only holdout was the Department of Corrections representative.

But the panel's assessment was merely advisory, and the attorney general's office turned to a five-member review panel composed of prosecutors. The five lawyers reviewing Angel's case include Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Darrell Moore, Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Cynthia Carle, Callaway County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Sterner, St. Charles Prosecuting Attorney Jack Banas and G. John Richards, the Lincoln County prosecutor who handled Angel's "Truth or Dare" case. On June 19, 2000, the prosecutors voted 5-0 that Angel was a sexually violent predator. Under the law, it's the prosecutors' vote that really matters, and their approval allowed Nixon to proceed with the case.

Three days after the vote, the attorney general filed a petition with Lincoln County Associate Circuit Judge Patrick Flynn, asking the court to detain Angel after her July 31, 2000, release date. The judge agreed. Lyn Ruess and Eric Selig, attorneys from the Missouri Public Defender's sex-crime unit, were brought in to represent Angel. Both lawyers are nine-year veterans of the office and part of a handful of attorneys experienced in fighting the "sexually violent predator" proceedings.

The defense team hired Dr. Delaney Dean, a Kansas City psychologist and former lawyer. After examining Angel, Dean concluded that Woody's sexual-sadism diagnosis was wrong -- the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual does not permit the diagnosis for someone who merely has oral sex with someone while HIV-positive. Dean agreed with the multidisciplinary panel: Angel was not a violent sexual predator.

Dean and the multidisciplinary panel weren't the only ones who thought Angel wasn't a sexually violent predator. After an Aug. 25, 2000, preliminary hearing, Judge Flynn ruled there was probable cause to hold a full-blown trial on the question. He appointed Dr. Richard Scott to examine Angel and file a report. Scott, the top forensic-evaluation expert at the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center (formerly known as the State Hospital), has performed 15 such evaluations and found that 11 detainees met the "sexually violent predator" criteria. He found that Angel did not.

Scott tells the Riverfront Times that in the evaluation of men, examiners have a body of research to rely on in making a determination. According to the research, male rapists have a 19 percent reoffense rate and child molesters have a 12.5 percent recidivism rate. After study of the characteristics shared by reoffenders share, two different statistical tools -- the Static 99 and the RRASOR, or Rapid Risk Assessment of Sex Offender Recidivism -- have been developed to help mental-health professionals make determinations. The tests take into account such factors as the offender's age, the number of prior sex offenses, whether victims were male or female and whether a clinical diagnosis of paraphilia, pedophilia or bipolar disorder exists. Then they predict whether the person falls in the 81 to 87 percent who won't reoffend or whether the person should be kept confined as a sexually violent predator.

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