Last week, I wrote about Lavelle McNutt, a serial rapist given many second chances. His Georgia Department of Corrections record is a record of something else, as well: our failure to imprison repeat offenders, even after the 1994 sentencing reform law was passed.
As the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported a few weeks ago, McNutt’s first adult rape conviction, for two separate rapes in New York State, occurred in 1976, just after he turned 18. When you see an 18-year old convicted of a serious offense, you have to wonder about the contents of his sealed juvenile record: 18-year olds don’t wake up one day, break into the first house they see, and rape the occupant. They usually start experimenting with sexual abuse early in adolescence, victimizing their siblings, peers, and other easy targets. How many children and young women had already been sexually assaulted by McNutt by the time he aged out of the juvenile system?
I believe those victims exist, and that unlike Lavelle McNutt, they were abandoned by society. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: the football coaches and college presidents who treated McNutt like a victim because he was a rapist abetted him in his crimes, thus sentencing his victims to a lifetime without justice.
The two rape victims in the New York State cases were also denied justice, only in a different way. McNutt was sentenced to a preposterously light term of five years for the two rapes. He served less than three years of that, and by 1979 he was a college student at Atlanta’s Morehouse University. Almost immediately, he was charged in another sexual assault, this time for aggravated sodomy. In May, 1979, he began serving a seven-year sentence for that crime. He got out in three years.
In 1982, Lavelle McNutt was 24 years old and already had three adult sexual assault convictions on his record. Two years later, he was convicted of aggravated assault in Clayton County. Was that a rape case, pled down to a non-sexual charge? He also had a burglary conviction in Fulton County, date unknown. Burglary and aggravated assault charges from the early 1980’s might very well have been rapes, or attempted rapes. Atlanta was notorious at that time for going easy on sex offenders — thanks largely to irresponsible jurors who rendered sex crime prosecutions almost impossible to win, regardless of the circumstances. An ugly contempt for victims of rape was the status quo in the courts. The malaise incited by public prejudices towards victims crashed the entire system, and Atlanta was a rapist’s paradise. And a victim’s nightmare. It would be very interesting to know more about those crimes.
In 1984, McNutt was sentenced to five years for the aggravated assault. Oddly, he did serve nearly all of that sentence, receiving only a few months off, probably for the time he was behind bars awaiting sentencing. This is another reason I suspect that the underlying crime was something more serious than aggravated assault. In any case, for five years the public was protected from him. Pre-sentencing reform, this was the best a prosecutor could do. In August, 1989, he was free again.
In 1992, McNutt was charged in Fulton County with the offense called “Peeping Tom.” Funny as that sounds, he was probably casing out a victim to rape or amusing himself between more serious attacks. He received three years for the Fulton crime and 12 months for a crime labeled “other misdemeanor” in Gwinnett County. He was out again two years later, in 1994.
Georgia’s sentencing reform law was passed in 1994. It was supposed to enhance sentencing for repeat offenders and extend sentences significantly for so-called “serious violent offenders.” But the law was passed with several default mechanisms that enabled judges to keep releasing repeat offenders onto the streets. Consider this language:
Except as otherwise provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, any person convicted of a felony offense in this state or having been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of a crime which if committed within this state would be a felony and sentenced to confinement in a penal institution, who shall afterwards commit a felony punishable by confinement in a penal institution, shall be sentenced to undergo the longest period of time prescribed for the punishment of the subsequent offense of which he or she stands convicted, provided that, unless otherwise provided by law, the trial judge may, in his or her discretion, probate or suspend the maximum sentence prescribed for the offense [italics inserted]. (O.C.G.A. 17-10-7)
In other words, a criminal must be sentenced to the maximum penalty the second time he is convicted of a felony unless the judge decides to sentence him to something other than the maximum penalty, such as no time at all, as in the case of six-time home burglar Johnny Dennard. What is the point of a law like this? The point is that the criminal defense bar still controlled the Georgia Legislature in 1994, and other elected officials lacked the courage to stand up to them. The rest of the story is that too many judges betray disturbing pro-defendant biases, even when it comes to violent predators like Lavelle McNutt.
Nevertheless, other portions of the 1994 sentencing reform law did strengthen sentences for repeat offenders. In 1996, McNutt was charged with aggravated assault and stalking in Fulton County. Aggravated assault is not one of the “seven deadly sins” that trigger sentencing as a “serious violent felon” under the 1994 act: if it were, he would have been sentenced to life without parole due to his prior rape convictions.
Yet even as a “non-serious violent felon” repeat offender, McNutt was still required under the 1994 sentencing reform act to serve the entire sentence for his crimes. But he didn’t. He was sentenced to six years and served less than four. He walked into prison in January, 1997 and walked out again three and a half years later, in July of 2000. Even counting the time he may have spent cooling his heels in the Fulton County jail before being transferred to the state prison (or maybe not), he was out of prison four years and two months after the date of the crime for which he was sentenced to no less than six years behind bars, with no parole.
Here is the code section that restricts parole for four-time felons:
[A]ny person who, after having been convicted under the laws of this state for three felonies or having been convicted under the laws of any other state or of the United States of three crimes which if committed within this state would be felonies, commits a felony within this state other than a capital felony must, upon conviction for such fourth offense or for subsequent offenses, serve the maximum time provided in the sentence of the judge based upon such conviction and shall not be eligible for parole until the maximum sentence has been served. (from O.C.G.A. 17 -10-7)
Can anybody explain the fact that McNutt was granted parole? Who let him go early, apparently in direct violation of Georgia’s reformed sentencing law? Did the prosecutors fail to record his three prior felony convictions dating back to 1976 — two rapes (counted as one, unfortunately), aggravated sodomy, and the 1984 aggravated assault? Did the judge ignore the law of Georgia in sentencing McNutt? Did the Department of Corrections ignore the no-parole rule? Who is responsible?
For that matter, why didn’t the judge give McNutt a longer sentence in the first place? How could any judge look at the accumulated evidence of violently predatory sexual behavior, of repeat offenses rolling in after each brief incarceration, and not decide that it was his or her duty to protect the public for longer than six years? Does anybody on the criminal justice bench in Atlanta even contemplate public safety in sentencing?
Furthermore, why was McNutt charged with stalking and aggravated assault for the same incident? Was he actually attempting to commit a sexual assault? Could he have been charged with attempted sexual assault instead, a charge that would have triggered the life sentence (read: 14 years) as a serious violent felon and repeat offender? Was he permitted to plead to a charge that didn’t carry life imprisonment? Did the Fulton prosecutor’s office do everything it could do to keep McNutt off the streets, given his disturbing prior history and relentless sequence of serious crimes?
Also, was McNutt’s DNA checked before he was released from prison in 2000? Could other rapes have been solved, and charged, before he walked out of prison again? How many rapes could have been prevented, including the four recent Buckhead-area sex crimes, if this had been done? His first adult rape conviction occurred in 1976 — his latest rape charges occurred quite recently. Does anybody believe he took a twenty-year hiatus from hunting and torturing women?
Until his most recent arrest, Lavelle McNutt had been a free man since July, 2000, working in Atlanta-area restaurants, even managing them. He wasn’t hiding. As if his prior record isn’t bad enough, the current allegations about him are sickening: an informant reported that he carried “duct tape, wigs, lubricant and sex toys” in his car, to use during sexual assaults. We have all certainly helped him along on the road to perfecting his torture of women.
Why doesn’t a case like this capture the imagination of Atlanta’s many criminologists and law professors who rail endlessly against the putative cruelty of three-strikes laws (when they aren’t busy inventing fake statistical measurements to downplay the city’s crime numbers)? Why aren’t elected officials asking some very hard questions about the enforcement of the laws they passed? Why isn’t the GBI offering a clarification about the status of McNutt’s DNA profile, the date it was entered into the state database, and the number of rape kits it matched?
Why isn’t somebody calling for an audit of the possible prosecution, sentencing, and parole errors that released McNutt to the streets, over and over and over again?