Update: On Dec. 2, Judge Finigan ordered convicted violent sexual predator Lamar Johnson to be released to a residence in East Palo Alto, over the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office's objection. Additional information is incorporated at the bottom of this story.
The release from prison of a man with a history as a "sexually violent predator" and his proposed placement by the state in an East Palo Alto neighborhood are stirring up opposition from the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office, East Palo Alto police and local residents.
Lamar Johnson, 60, was arrested in 1984 and 1992 for multiple sexual assaults both within and outside of San Mateo County. His convictions include the forcible rape of three victims, forcible oral copulation, statutory rape, assault with intent to commit sodomy and assault with the intent to rape, according to court records.
A jury unanimously determined him to be a sexually violent predator, which is defined as a person convicted of a sexually violent offense against one or more victims, who has a diagnosed mental disorder that makes the person a danger to the health and safety of others and who is likely to engage in sexually violent criminal behavior.
After Johnson served 27 years of a 36-year sentence, the California Department of State Hospitals deemed him no longer a threat to the public and recommended that he live in East Palo Alto, said Deputy District Attorney Alpana Samant, who will present the DA's office's opposition to Judge Jeffrey Finigan on Wednesday, Dec. 1.
Finigan will decide whether to sign off on Johnson's release, determine where he would live and establish the terms of his release. Some convicts, for example, may need outpatient services to prevent relapse.
In Johnson's case, East Palo Alto is located in the county of Johnson's last conviction, but that wouldn't necessarily be the deciding factor, said Shin-Mee Chang, assistant district attorney for San Mateo County.
A judge has broad latitude and can look at the history of the person and whether their presence puts the community at risk and can decide to reject the Department of State Hospitals' placement.
At least six schools and childrens/teens support programs are approximately within a 2,000-foot radius of the home on Beech Street where Johnson might live. They include East Palo Alto Academy, The Primary School, Oxford Day Academy, Family Connections and the Girls to Women program and Laevngamalid Christian Academy. Five additional locations serving students are located approximately 100 feet beyond the 2,000-foot circumference.
Chang said the DA's office hopes to successfully argue that East Palo Alto is one of the least likely places where a sexually violent predator should live.
"This is a target-rich environment for this particular offender," Chang said, noting that East Palo Alto is densely populated, and perhaps even more so than many of its neighboring cities. Typically, sexually violent predators would be placed in more rural communities where they are less likely to encounter potential victims.
Acting Police Chief Jeff Liu expressed his opposition in a letter to the community in late October.
"We are deeply concerned that our community could potentially have their safety at risk should this individual live near schools or rental properties," Liu wrote. "We believe the decision to allow this individual to live in such close proximity to schools and rental properties could create potentially dangerous situations for those who deserve to feel safe where they live, visit and work."
More than their fair share?
Neither San Mateo nor Santa Clara counties currently have people convicted as sexually violent predators assigned to live in their counties, according to the Megan's Law database, but they do have sex offenders.
Samant said there's important distinction between sexually violent predators and sex offenders, such as a person who committed one act 25 years ago and has not been a repeat offender since.
Opponents to Johnson's placement in the community say the city already has more than its share of sex offenders. According to the City-Data website, East Palo Alto has the highest ratio of sex offenders relative to its population compared to eight other local cities — one sex offender living in the community per every 531 residents as of Dec. 1.
City-Data lists 56 registered sex offenders while the State of California Department of Justice Megan's Law website lists 54 in the city.
In comparison, Palo Alto has 15 sex offenders, according to Megan's Law, and ranks as having the third lowest number of sex offenders relative to its population out of nine local cities: one offender per 3,377 residents.
Los Altos and Los Altos Hills are the least likely to house sex offenders, according to City-Data. Redwood City ranks second highest behind East Palo Alto in sex offenders relative to its population; Menlo Park ranks fourth and Mountain View is fifth, according to City-Data. The Megan's Law website lists 22 sex offenders, Mountain View lists 32 and Redwood City has 115.
Chang said she doesn't know the reasoning behind placing Johnson in San Mateo County. He isn't from the East Palo Alto community and his association with the county is due to being the location of his last conviction.
Local opposition to placement works from time to time. A Santa Cruz County judge ruled that sexually violent predator Michael Cheek should be sent to Redwood City's Emerald Hills neighborhood. Residents and local law enforcement there vigorously fought his placement. The matter ended this past February with Cheek not moving to Redwood City after the homeowner withdrew her property for consideration from the state's Conditional Release Program for Sexually Violent predators.
Chang said that Johnson is younger, at 60, than many other sexually violent predators who have been released. As the population "ages out" of the system, theoretically their risk level is reduced. But the district attorney's office is concerned that Johnson is still on the younger side, and given his history, there are too many risks.
Samant said Johnson would be wearing a GPS tracker so authorities will know if he violates his release by entering 200 feet into a forbidden area, but that's not an ironclad protection.
"At 200 feet, many people come into your orbit without alerting anyone," she said.
Finigan will allow a limited number of people to speak during the court hearing in person or on Zoom, and letters are also being admitted to the court from residents. Samant said she expects he will take the matter under submission and will issue a ruling at a later date.
The hearing regarding arguments against Johnson's release to East Palo Alto is scheduled on Dec. 1 at 9 a.m. in San Mateo County Superior Court, Hall of Justice, Dept. 24, 400 County Center, Redwood City.
Liu said that residents have until Dec. 1 to let the judge know about how they feel about Johnson's potential placement. Residents can send an email to [email protected] or visit the East Palo Alto Police Department's website at cityofepa.org/police to complete a short survey. To arrange to speak on Zoom during the hearing, residents can request Zoom credentials by calling 650-261-5124 or send an email to [email protected]
More than 1,200 East Palo Alto residents contacted the judge to express their serious concerns about placing Johnson in their city, Liu said in a Facebook post, but on Dec. 2 Judge Finigan ordered Johnson to be released to the residence in East Palo Alto. That order prompted some residents to speak of possibly trying to recall the judge.
"We were disheartened to hear the judge’s decision regarding the placement of sexually violent predator Lamar Johnson in East Palo Alto," Liu said.
"We want our community to know, we remain committed to working every day to ensure your safety. That has been, and always will be, our top priority. We will continue to advocate for you and your families every day. We take great pride in serving East Palo Alto. We will be ever ready to serve you and keep you safe."
Johnson isn't the first sexually violent predator to be released to the same residence. In 2009, hundreds of people protested outside the same home when Donald Robinson was released from prison to reside in the city. Prosecutors said that he is no longer living at the address.