By Tom Hays
and Larry Neumeister
NEW YORK: The convicted rapist formerly known as Louis Massei wore pink clam diggers and shoulder-length hair parted on the side for a star turn on the witness stand last week in a Manhattan courtroom.
The transgender witness, who now goes by the name Lisa, was there to describe what it was like to be involuntarily placed in a psychiatric facility for mentally ill offenders.
“My roommate was a person who fed his girlfriend to homeless people,” Massei told the jury. “You can’t run, you can’t fight. Someone has decided this is where you belong.”
Massei, 52, is among six ex-cons who have sued former Gov. George Pataki and other state officials for tens of millions of dollars. The lawsuit accuses the state of abusing its authority eight years ago by transferring the plaintiffs to psychiatric facilities at the end of their prison terms — in effect, summarily extending their sentences without recourse. None of the plaintiffs are still in mental health institutions.
Pataki is expected to testify early this week at a civil trial that’s a study in society’s struggle to protect the public from violent predators while preserving the legal rights of those same offenders. Abbe Lowell, Pataki’s lawyer, said in opening statements that Pataki knew in 2005 that 16 other states had addressed the problem of sexually violent predators being released after their prison terms by involuntary civil commitments to psychiatric institutions.
About 20 states now allow certain sex offenders to be detained at psychiatric facilities after their sentences are served if they have a mental disorder that would make them more likely to offend again. For several years, Pataki had tried to get state legislators to address the issue unsuccessfully.
After a newly paroled rapist killed a woman in 2005 in a suburban mall parking lot, Pataki’s solution was to use existing laws to direct prison officials to have the worst sex offenders evaluated for involuntary civil commitment once released from prison. The practice was halted in late 2006 after a state court found that the 12 men who were committed should have been entitled to hearings before it happened, but some of the prisoners remained in psychiatric institutions years afterward.
“I represent six convicted sex offenders,” plaintiffs’ attorney Reza Rezvani said in opening statements this month. “Never for one second will you hear me defend what they’ve done. What you will hear me defend is the Constitution of the United States of America, that Constitution that gives us the right before our government locks us up ... the right to have a chance to be heard.”
Barbara Hathaway, a lawyer for the state, argued that the plaintiffs ended up getting the treatment they needed, calling it “a case of no harm, no foul.” Under the program, 800 people were evaluated and 127 were committed, she added.
“This was not a rubber stamp,” she said. “Doctors were using their professional judgment.”
Massei, who served 25 years in the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl, described looking forward to escaping the constant scrutiny he felt behind bars.
“I’ve been told I was different all my life,” he said. “I want to be ignored.”