Shifting Ground

Not only are Angel's jailers changing the rules, they're fibbing about them

The story of Angela Coffel, the only woman in Missouri held as a sexually violent predator, is attracting national attention, a fact that seems to be causing discomfort to state officials who have trouble explaining why Coffel is still imprisoned after having completed her prison sentence.

Elle magazine writer Jennifer Baumgardner says that when she arrived last week at the Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center in Farmington to interview Coffel, she was prevented from using a tape recorder and a camera, barred from visiting the wing where Coffel is held and told that her interview would have to be conducted in the presence of the director of the state's sexually violent offender program. The restrictions, which Baumgardner described as chilling, were much broader than those imposed on the Riverfront Times, whose sympathetic account of Coffel's story angered state officials [Dreiling, "Fallen Angel," Jan. 9].

Coffel pleaded guilty to sodomy in 1994 for her role in a truth-or-dare game. Coffel, 19, was dared to perform oral sex on two boys, one 11 and the other 13. Coffel, who performed the act on the older boy for about five seconds, served five years in prison for the crime. Just before her scheduled release date, a Missouri Department of Corrections employee wrote a report concluding that Coffel met the definition of a sexual sadist because she performed oral sex on someone when she knew she was HIV-positive.

Angela Coffel
Jennifer Silverberg
Angela Coffel

Because of the report, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon pressed for Coffel's civil commitment under the state's new sexually violent predator act. Nixon pressed ahead despite the finding of a five-member panel of mental-health professionals that Coffel didn't meet the definition of a sexually violent predator. Ultimately, after a two-day trial in July 2001, Lincoln County Associate Circuit Court Judge Patrick Flynn ordered her committed for an indefinite period.

The Riverfront Timesstory, which reported that most mental-health professionals familiar with Coffel's case disagree with the state's finding, described the conditions in which she's being held. Coffel spends most of her day sleeping and watching television. She is guarded around the clock by at least two workers from the Department of Mental Health. Whether she is receiving treatment is unclear: State officials refuse to give specifics, claiming it would violate therapist-patient privilege. But they don't mention that the attorney general's office has statutory permission to violate that privilege any time they want and look at Coffel's file.

The story apparently struck a nerve with Marty Bellew-Smith, director of the sexually violent offender program. When Baumgardner arrived to interview Coffel for the magazine story, she says, Bellew-Smith took her aside and outlined the new rules. The Riverfront Timescalled Bellew-Smith to confirm Baumgardner's account; instead, we received a call back from Jeanne Henry, a spokeswoman for the mental-health department.

Henry didn't know anything about the interview but assured the RFT that the department wouldn't "violate clients' First Amendment rights." Henry said the RFT couldn't talk directly to Bellew-Smith but offered to find out what had happened. Instead of calling Bellew-Smith directly, though, Henry talked to Dr. Rick Gowdy, the Department of Mental Health's director of forensic services, who also claimed to know nothing about the meeting. When the RFT pressed for an answer, Henry asked, "Are you writing a factual article or a gossip article?" Ultimately Henry said that Bellew-Smith denied imposing restrictions on the writer. The only thing she admitted to was being present during the interview.

But Baumgardner insists that not only did Bellew-Smith prohibit the tape recorder, she claimed that tape recorders were never allowed. To ensure that the Elle writer didn't slip her tape recorder into the building, Baumgardner says, Bellew-Smith even "walked me back to my car" to make sure the device was left in the vehicle. And Bellew-Smith made it clear that photographs of Coffel would not be allowed.

The interview was conducted in a first-floor conference room, and Bellew-Smith was present during the entire interview. "I thought it was very chilling," Baumgardner says.

At the end of the interview, Baumgardner asked to see Coffel's room. As Bellew-Smith looked on, Coffel indicated that no one was allowed in her room "since the situation after the Riverfront Times story." Now all of Coffel's guests must meet her in the conference room. After the Riverfront Times started asking questions about the new media rules, Bellew-Smith called Coffel's attorneys and asked them to stop talking to the media.

There is a possibility, however, that the state's heavy-handed restrictions will become a moot issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court last month ruled in Kansas v. Crane that prosecutors must prove someone has "serious difficulty" controlling his or her behavior before the person can be committed as a sexually violent predator. The high court sent the case back for a new hearing.

Missouri's law is modeled after the one in Kansas, which means that prosecutors in sexually violent predator cases haven't been required to show that a person has "serious difficulty" controlling his or her behavior. The ruling had an immediate impact on a case pending before the Missouri Supreme Court. The state case, In re Thomas, involves the appeal of a sexually violent predator determination. Although the case had previously been briefed and argued, the court asked the parties in the case to file new briefs.

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