How could law allow sex offender to remain victim’s neighbor?
RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)—It’s a story CBS 6 first alerted you to last month, about a convicted sex offender, just out of prison, who was allowed to move back into his apartment, just feet from a school and one block away from his three-year-old victim.
The sounds of children laughing and playing in their front yard, nestled in the heart of the Museum District, disappeared into an eerie silence on the afternoon of June 14th.
That’s when Phillip Neald said his 3-year-old son was sexually molested by a man who lived just a block away.
Neald said his wife was inside cleaning while their two children were playing on the front porch, when 50-year-old Michael Davis opened the front gate and approached the children.
Neald said his wife walked outside to check on the children and was startled to see Davis abusing their son.
“She was so petrified,” Neald said. “He came in from the front gate and he was leaning over the rails and abusing my son. He had his hands deep down inside my son’s shorts.”
In that moment, Neald said, Davis shattered his family’s sense of security.
To spare the children the heartache of a trial, the family settled on a plea agreement. In October, Davis pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual battery of a child and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with 9 years and 9 months suspended.
A judge suspended all but 3 months of the sentence, citing Davis’ lack of a criminal history.
As part of the plea agreement, Davis was told to have no contact with the Neald family and to register as a sex offender with the Virginia State Police. He was also placed on indefinite probation.
Just a few weeks after Davis’ conviction, he was released from jail and allowed to return to his apartment in the 3000 block of Grove Avenue, still only one block from his young victim and less than 60-feet from the school attended by the Neald’s 9-year-old daughter.
The Neald family said they were shocked. They claim they were told that Davis was planning to move to Washington state after his release, to be with his mother. The Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney told the family that he was also shocked that Davis had returned to his apartment, but explained that his hands were tied.
“The only thing that separated him (Davis) from the school was a road,” Neald said. “My daughter walks down that road every day to school.”
The Nealds and other school parents were beside themselves. They questioned how a convicted sex offender was allowed to live so close to a school.
Neighbors and school officials had expressed concerns to police, even before Davis attacked the Neald’s son, because of what they viewed as inappropriate behavior.
“He stares a lot and says inappropriate things,” claims neighbor Maura Black.
CBS 6 became involved in mid-October, when the principal at the school sent a letter home to parents warning them of Davis’ presence across the street .
On October 24, Davis told CBS 6 that he believed he was within his legal right to remain in his home. He said neither his attorney nor his parole officer had asked him to find another place to live or suggested he move.
But within one day of our story airing, The Virginia Department of Corrections announced that Davis had been moved out of the neighborhood.
Richmond Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Edward Nickel said Davis moved on his own volition. He said Davis was not violating his parole or the terms of the sex offender registry.
“I think it was ultimately his decision,” Nickel said. “He realized it was not going to be a tenable living situation for him to be there because the community didn’t want him there.”
Nickel said the charge against Davis, aggravated sexual battery, doesn’t carry restrictions that limit where he can live. The statute only prevents him from loitering within 100-feet of a school.
Nickel said only sex offenders convicted of the more serious offenses of rape or sodomy face stricter laws that forbid them from residing or loitering within 500-feet of a school or other places where children dwell.
Nickel said the law that applies to Davis is more difficult to interpret.
“If you have a hypothetical situation where somebody is inside their house, sitting in their living room, they’re not in violation of that code section,” Nickel argued.
“However, if they’re sitting on their porch and they’re hanging outside and they’re within 100-feet of the school, I would think that was loitering.”
The Neald family said neighbors told them that Davis had been spotted walking past their home. Maura Black also snapped a picture of what she said was Davis standing on the sidewalk directly outside the school.
But even with the photographic evidence and accusations from neighbors, Nickel said proving Davis had been loitering was difficult.
CBS 6 legal analyst and defense attorney Todd Stone said that sex offender laws are complicated.
“This is such a murky area,” Stone said. “There’s a point where the law can be too restrictive and unconstitutional, and our constitution has been around a lot longer than the laws we have today.”
Phillip Neald said he sees things differently.
“We’re becoming prisoners in our own homes,” Neald said. “We were the victims.”
While the Nealds said they’d rather forget the past and move forward, they feel compelled to speak out. They fear their silence could hurt another family.
“Whose kids are going to go missing before they actually start taking this sex registry seriously?” Neald asked.
The Neald family said they would continue to speak out and put pressure on Virginia lawmakers to more clearly define the state’s sex offender law.