Chelsea’s Law, signed into California law on September 9, 2010, by then-governor Schwarzenegger scant months after the court sentenced John Gardner to two life sentences without parole for the murders of Amber Dubois and Chelsea King is, at the heart of it, a compulsory minimum sentencing law. It allows life without parole sentences for adults who, if while committing a sexual offense against a child, kidnap, drug, bind, torture, or use a weapon. Life terms could apply for both first-time and repeat offenders. It also increases other penalties, including requiring lifetime parole with GPS tracking for those convicted of forcible sex crimes against children under fourteen.
According to available information, 74 individuals have been charged under Chelsea’s Law since its beginning, and eight have had their sentences impacted because of it.
The father of Chelsea, Brian King, and CA legislator Nathan Fletcher, author of Chelsea’s Law, are now lobbying to extend the bill into other states with the goal being a version of the law in all states. Two organizations, Chelsea’s Light Foundation and Chelsea’s Shield, have been formed to further this agenda.
While agreeing that those who commit heinous acts need lengthy and stiff sentencing and monitoring periods, critics oppose first time offenders falling under the reach of this law. Critics further fear the law will, in application, stray outside reasonably narrow restraints. One critic, on reading the law, commented that, technically, it could apply to someone who pulls a victim a few feet into an alley—kidnapping—and touches him or her over clothing—sexual assault—and then releases him or her.
An attempt to identify those charged under the law, especially the eight who received impacted sentences, yielded skimpy but interesting results.
The first to be charged, when the bill was exactly one week old, was Joseph Cantora, 55, diagnosed mentally disabled in 1981, now accused of lewd acts against two young boys. The acts consisted of exposing himself and touching over clothing. Mr. Cantora had a history of sexual abuse charges involving children. He had spent time in a state institution, and, at a competency hearing, was judged to be mentally incompetent to stand trial. He was sent to a state mental hospital for people with developmental disabilities.
A far more worthy candidate for Chelsea’s Law enhancements was found in David Lascelles, 50. Arrested three months after the enactment of the law, Mr. Lascelles, while having no previous charges for a sexual crime, was no stranger to the criminal justice system. He was on parole after serving prison time for a 2005 felony conviction. He was charged with the kidnapping and forcible rape of a 15-year-old girl he knew through a family friend. Under Chelsea’s Law, Lascelles was eligible for a sentence of 25 years to life without the possibility of parole. He pled to the charges without the allegations under Chelsea’s Law and admitted a serious felony prior and strike prior. He was sentenced to 42 years and four months in state prison.
Unlike Lascelles, Frank Zsemlye, 27, had no prior record of any sort. In July of 2012, he allegedly followed two sisters into a public restroom at a park, shoved the 13-year-old into a stall, and fondled her over her clothing. When she screamed, he ran and was apprehended some blocks away. His bail, initially set at $100,000.00, was requested by prosecutors to be raised to $1,000,000.00. He is eligible for Chelsea’s Law enhancement because of the age of the victim, under fourteen.
One report showed a need for a competency hearing before trial, but research turned up nothing to suggest whether that has been done or, if it has, the result. With no trial yet, the fate of Mr. Zsemlye and application of Chelsea’s Law to his charges are unknown.
What is known is this: Frank Zsemlye is a young, possibly mentally impaired man, a stranger to the criminal justice system. Zsemlye pulled a 13-year-old girl a couple of feet into a bathroom stall and fondled her over her clothing for the few seconds it took her to scream. Disgusting act, yes; no child should be subjected to such violation. No one anywhere would refute that Mr. Zsemlye needs proper assessment and, based on that, proper treatment and punishment.
However, is it for the Frank Zsemlyes that Chelsea’s Law was crafted? Do his actions, despicable as they are, warrant charges that could quite possibly result in a sentence of life without possibility of parole? If Chelsea’s Law is extended to other states, how many Frank Zsemlyes will face the possibility of life without parole for first-time offenses and for offenses that fall far short of the intended standard? Surely the most urgent question is how long will it be before legislators, as they historically do, add other qualifying offenses, ones that do not rise to the same level of seriousness and that cast a net over a much broader scope and larger scale?