By Raphael Satter
Britain's High Court on Thursday blocked a US government bid to extradite a sex criminal to Minnesota, saying the state's restrictive treatment program for sex offenders was far too draconian.
Judges Alan Moses and David Eady endorsed 43-year-old Shawn Sullivan's appeal against extradition after US authorities refused to guarantee that Sullivan wouldn't be placed in Minnesota's civil commitment program, which provides for the indefinite detention of people found to be "sexually dangerous."
The judges said that commitment to the program would be in "flagrant denial" of Sullivan's human rights.
Sullivan, a dual US-Irish citizen, is accused of raping a 14-year-old girl and sexually molesting two 11-year-olds in Minnesota in the 1990s. He escaped to Ireland as prosecutors prepared to file charges, and while staying there was convicted of sexually assaulting two 12-year-old girls.
Authorities finally caught up with him two years ago in London, where he'd moved using an Irish passport that spelled his last name in Gaelic as "O'Suilleabhain".
The British judges made clear in an earlier decision that they would have supported Sullivan's extradition had it not been for the sex treatment program, which they described as among the toughest in the United States.
The Minnesota program, which began in the mid-1990s, allows civil courts to commit a person for sex offender treatment if a judge decides the person is sexually psychopathic or sexually dangerous. As of April 1, 641 people were in the program.
The High Court justices outlined a litany of concerns, noting that offenders don't have to be mentally ill to be committed; their offenses don't have to be recent; and in some cases, those placed in the program don't even have to have been convicted of any crime.
The judges added they'd seen no evidence that anyone had ever been released from the program since it began in its current form in 1988.
"There is a real risk that if returned, Mr. Sullivan will be the subject of an order of civil commitment," the judges said in the June 20 decision, adding that placing him in the program would be a flagrant denial of his rights.
They gave US officials a week to guarantee that Sullivan wouldn't be enrolled in the program, but when no assurances were made, the extradition proceedings were dropped Thursday.
The program has been criticised for holding people indefinitely. A 64-year-old man became the first person to be granted a provisional discharge in more than a decade earlier this year when he was allowed to move into a Minneapolis-area halfway house. Only one other person was ever released from the program, and he was soon taken back into custody on a violation.
In Minnesota, two county prosecutors said they were disappointed by the decision. The statement from Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said it was "not in the interests of public safety" for them to commit to keeping Sullivan out of the program.
They said they would pursue criminal prosecutions if he returns to the US.
Peter Wold, Sullivan's criminal defence attorney in Minnesota, said the British judges had balked at the prospect of indefinite detention. "That offended them, and it should offend a lot of people, to have the prospect of people being committed with no end in sight," he said.
Michael Hall III, the attorney representing the three alleged victims in Minnesota, said it was unfortunate that Sullivan wouldn't be held accountable by law enforcement.
"Now, really the only avenue available to his victims in the US is through the civil courts," he said.
Hall's clients sued Sullivan in January. Sullivan's attorney had asked that the case be put on hold pending a decision on extradition on criminal charges, but Hall said he anticipated the lawsuit would now go forward.
Hall said he expected a civil jury to award "significant punitive damages" against Sullivan - though he conceded there could be difficulties enforcing a judgment if Sullivan remains in Britain.