NEW YORK — Defending himself Tuesday against a lawsuit, former New York Gov. George Pataki described a creepy stranger who joined a family hike nearly two decades ago as a major catalyst in his crusade to institutionalize violent sexual predators.
Pataki told about the episode in Hudson Highlands State Park near his Peekskill birthplace as he explained to a federal jury in Manhattan why he became interested in ridding the streets of violent sex offenders soon after he became governor in 1995.
The 68-year-old Pataki is a defendant in a civil lawsuit filed by six convicted sex offenders who said their constitutional rights were violated when a Pataki-initiated program in 2005 caused them to be transferred indefinitely to psychiatric centers when their prison terms ended. A state court ruled a year later that the program was illegal, but the men remained institutionalized for years.
The three-term Republican governor said he was hiking with his wife, a son and several neighborhood children in 1995 or 1996 when he noticed a stranger was constantly near them and would "walk right out and stand next to the kids."
He telephoned state police troopers on security detail nearby and they learned he had been convicted of sexual crimes in the Rochester area.
"My family was fine. I had troopers, but I couldn't help but think of a mother on a walk in the park with a child, or a child at a playground, and it just made me personally aware not just of the horrors of these crimes, but the immediacy of the possibility," Pataki said.
Pataki said he tried unsuccessfully for years to get the state legislature to pass a law that would let violent sexual predators be evaluated for possible involuntary institutionalization at the end of their prison terms. He said a Democratic assemblyman and a prosecutor were among those in 2005 who suggested it could be done under existing law.
He said he was determined to develop the program after a newly paroled rapist killed a woman in 2005 in a suburban mall parking lot and then told investigators that he was angry he had to register as a sex offender and was not getting mental health treatment from Westchester County that he thought he deserved.
Repeatedly, Pataki testified he began the program that put more than 100 convicted prisoners into psychiatric institutions only after he was advised existing law allowed it.
U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff told jurors the initiative was unconstitutional and they must determine whether the defendants acted with intent to deprive the plaintiffs of constitutional rights.
Before Pataki told about his family's hike, attorneys for the plaintiffs objected.
"I think this is, to be frank, the price you pay by asking for punitive damages," Rakoff said. "It opens up a very broad scope of relevance."
Pataki, himself a lawyer, insisted he knew little specifics of the program when he announced in October 2005 that every sexually violent predator in state custody would be evaluated for involuntary civil commitment once prison sentences were finished.
The practice was halted in late 2006 after the state court ruling.
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.
Pataki said he wanted to rid society of the effects of "particularly heinous crimes" because rape and molestation tend to plague victims throughout life and because he was advised that sexually violent criminals have a high rate of recidivism.
"Anybody's hopes or dreams can vanish in a minute in an act of violence," he said.