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Missouri prosecutor fights Jessica's law

Prominent Missouri prosecutor Bob Wilkins says tougher sentences for sex offenders will backfire and put children in danger. Dan Abrams talks with Bob Wilkins

A year after Jessica Lunsford went missing, one of the nation's leading prosecutors is fighting a so-called Jessica's law in his state. 

Thursday marked a year since 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford was last seen.  She was abducted from her Florida bedroom by convicted sex offender John Couey, who admitted repeatedly raping her over three days before burying her alive in the backyard. 

Since Jessica's body was found and John Couey was arrested, Jessica's father and many others have been pushing for tougher sentences for sex offenders.  Florida passed Jessica's law requiring a minimum sentence of 25 years for certain sex offenses and other states are following suit.  Lawmakers in Missouri are considering more than a dozen versions of Jessica's law.  But now a prominent Missouri prosecutor says that tougher sentences for sex offenders will backfire and actually put children in danger. 

Jefferson County Missouri prosecuting attorney Bob Wilkins, who until recently was also the president of the Missouri Prosecutors Association joined Dan Abrams on ‘The Abrams Report’ to explain why he’s trying to fight Jessica’s law.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

DAN ABRAMS, HOST, ‘THE ABRAMS REPORT’:  So what is wrong with making sentences tougher for sex offenders?

BOB WILKINS, JEFFERSON COUNTY MISSOURI PROSECUTING ATTY:  Well the problem is that not every case is the same.  And unfortunately most of the bills that have been sponsored in the Missouri legislature basically eliminate every child sex case statute on the books.  And it says, in its place, if you touch a child under the age of 12, you do 25 years or 30 years or life. 

ABRAMS:  Are you comfortable though with saying, for example, if you have sex with a child under a certain age, if you force sex on a child under a certain age that you get a minimum of 25 years?

WILKINS:  We have no problem with that.  And let me first say that I certainly believe that every child molester in this country ought to be behind bars for at least 25 to 30 years.  The reality, however, is that more of them will be on the street, unregulated and unsupervised if we pass Jessica's law,

ABRAMS:  Why?  What's going on happen? 

WILKINS:  Because we have situations where very young children are being victimized by people within their own household and the—in many cases, the father, the grandfather, the stepfather.  We have difficulty with the victim testifying.  We have difficult with the family cooperating, and the prosecutors are going to have to look at these cases on an individual basis, review the facts, and determine one, that they believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. 

Two-that based upon the difficulties of the victim that the juries will convict.  And then you have to add in are they going to convict and establishing minimum 25-year sentence.  And as prosecutors, we have the obligation morally and ethically not to file charges if we don't believe that the jury will impose that kind of punishment.  And what's going to happen unfortunately...

ABRAMS:  If there's a mandatory sentence, though, I mean are the jurors always going be to told about the sentence?

WILKINS:  Well that's an interesting question.  And every state is different, but in Missouri we have jury sentencing and we have what is called a bifurcated trial.  We have a guilt phase and a penalty phase. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.  OK.

WILKINS:  And the judges in this case in this state are going to allow the defense to put on evidence in the first part and argue to the jury that they should be allowed to talk about punishment because of the harsh reality of a 25-year sentence.

ABRAMS:  Basically, it sounds like what you're saying is it's going to make it a lot harder to plea bargain.  Meaning, in a lot of these cases what you'd like to do is say all right, we don't want the victim to have to testify here.  As a result, we'd like to be able to make sure this person gets 12 years, eight years, as opposed to 25.

WILKINS:  Absolutely.  Not every case is worth 25 years and I know that that is difficult to understand.

ABRAMS:  Give me an example of a case that under one of the statutes you're concerned about that someone would get 25 years, when you don't think they deserve it?

WILKINS:  An 18-year-old neighbor in a backyard pool with his 11-year-old next-door neighbor, and he touches her on the outside of her clothing on the breast.  Under most of the bills that have been filed in Missouri, that would be a 25-year minimum sentence for an 18-year-old young man.

ABRAMS: See, because I've long been troubled by the idea of sort of an 18-year-old having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend and then suddenly you know being prosecuted, getting serious time and being branded as a sex offender.  Those have always disturbed me.  But let's focus very quickly and finally on the issue of people who are committing violent acts against children.  Let's be clear. 

You're not opposing 25-year sentences, correct? 

WILKINS:  That's absolutely correct.   For any forcible act involving a child under the age of 12, Missouri's prosecutors are 100 percent in support.

ABRAMS:  And bottom line, though, any act committed upon a child who is 7 or 8, that is sexual, has got to be considered forcible. 

WILKINS:  Well that's an interesting question.  In most cases it is easier for prosecutors to allege that it is a statutory offense, because the child is under the age of 12

ABRAMS:  You don't oppose it.  Let me just get your position.  If you have sex with a 9-year-old and you're a 30-year-old guy, that's forcible sex.

WILKINS:  I agree with that. 

ABRAMS:  All right.

WILKINS:  Absolutely. There also is the statutory offenses, as well.  An 8 or a 9-year-old child and we've seen them much younger than that is forcible. 

ABRAMS:  Look, I think all of this stuff is important to lay out there and debate and figure out what's the best way to put these guys away for the most time and at the least problems and the least hardship for these children and for these families involved. 

Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.