Angel's Wings

Only Jay Nixon stands in the way of Angela Coffel's freedom

As the only woman Missouri has ever declared a sexually violent predator, Angela Coffel faced the prospect of being locked up indefinitely. For years, she has pleaded with the state for a second chance.

On March 4, the Missouri Court of Appeals gave her that chance. Reversing a trial judge's early ruling, the appellate court ordered Coffel's release from state custody.

The decision, which represents a major rebuke to the state, is headline news across the country, not only because the court found little evidence that Coffel would re-offend but because it found very little scientific evidence that any female sex offender is likely to commit sex crimes again.

In her first interview since the ruling, the 26-year-old woman nicknamed Angel by her now-deceased grandmother is beaming, though her feet are shackled and three state employees and a guard keep watch.

Eric Selig, one of the St. Louis public defenders who represented Coffel, sits at Coffel's side in a conference room at the Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center in Farmington. Moments later, they're joined by Lyn Ruess, the lawyer who once called Coffel's emotionally wrenching case a "career-ender." Ruess, who left the public defender's office last month for a corporate job, asks how Coffel is doing.

"I feel great," Coffel says, smiling. She's so excited, it's hard to tell she's been up all night, unable to sleep. "I've been running to the phone all day yesterday," Coffel says. "Every time somebody got the good news, they called me up. Then I was on the news last night. I was, like, 'Oh God, that's me!'"

The road to last week's ruling has stretched over three years, beginning with Attorney General Jay Nixon's request for a court order to keep Coffel locked up under the state's new sexual-predator statute. The case charted new waters: Coffel was the only woman the state went after -- and even cases involving men hadn't gotten very far through the judicial system.

Coffel's legal troubles stem from an incident that occurred on October 6, 1994, when she performed oral sex on two brothers, ages eleven and thirteen, during a game of "Truth or Dare" [Dreiling, "Fallen Angel" January 9, 2002]. Coffel, who was eighteen and HIV-positive, said she'd been drinking and that the sex acts on the boys lasted only a few seconds. She was charged with two counts of sodomy.

While the criminal case was pending, a judge ordered Coffel to stay away from her fifteen-year-old boyfriend. She didn't, and even though a pretrial report recommended probation, she was sentenced to five years in prison. After Coffel served her time, Nixon's office went to court to have her designated a sexually violent predator. The law gives the state Department of Mental Health authority to hold sex offenders if a court decides, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person is "more likely than not" to re-offend. In August 2000, Lincoln County Associate Circuit Judge Patrick Flynn sided with the state.

The Court of Appeals, however, says Flynn was wrong and that his decision was "based on private, subjective and untested theories."

After Coffel's case was argued before a three-judge panel in November, the court took the unusual step of asking for all of the original exhibits. In its lengthy written opinion, the court carefully detailed the evidence.

The court noted that several mental-health experts had determined that Coffel did not fit the state's definition of a sexually violent predator, including a multidisciplinary panel charged under the law with reviewing her case. A similar conclusion was reached by Dr. Richard Scott, a forensic psychologist appointed by the trial court as an independent examiner. Two experts hired by Coffel's lawyers also testified that there was no scientific research to support a finding that Coffel would re-offend. Studies show a re-offense-risk rate of zero to 2 percent among women.

The court took a dim view of the state's expert witnesses, noting that one wasn't a licensed psychologist and the other, Dr. Amy Phenix, had never worked with female sex offenders and had no data to support her opinion that Coffel was a sexually violent predator. Phenix testified that she was relying on her "clinical judgment" -- which, she admitted, was no better than chance.

The weight of the evidence, the appeals court ruled, wasn't enough to take away someone's freedom, possibly forever.

Selig and Ruess are thrilled by the ruling.

"I've read the decision so many times, I've been, like, 'Wow -- they get it!" Selig says.

The case should never have taken this long, says Ruess. "We were stalled on so many fronts," Ruess says. She blames Nixon for fighting so hard to keep Coffel locked up, saying it demonstrates the attorney general's lack of "understanding of law and evidence."

"Angela's so much more than Jay Nixon reducing her to a child molester in black-and-white," Ruess says. "That's just pathetic."

Nixon, who plans to appeal the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court, defends the state's position: "The bottom line is, if a man did these things, we'd be calling him a child molester."

Even though the two sodomy counts are Coffel's only convictions, Nixon says she's a predator because she was HIV-positive when she sodomized the boys and also had sex with her boyfriend, then a minor. "There are no consensual acts with children," he says.

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