Overruling objections from several public officials, a state appeals court panel has cleared the way for the possible release of a convicted rapist, Christopher R. Coker, from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).
The decision sets the stage either for Coker, 47, to be released into a halfway house under close surveillance, or for state prosecutors to appeal the ruling to the state’s highest court.
Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper, whose agency oversees the MSOP, said the state is weighing an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which would delay or possibly prevent Coker’s release. “Based on the review and recommendations of multiple experts, this client is not ready for provisional discharge into the community,” Piper said in a statement Wednesday.
Coker was convicted three times of third-degree criminal sexual conduct for raping three minor girls in separate incidents in 1991 and 1992. He forced one victim under a bridge, where he threatened to kill her if she screamed. After serving prison sentences, Coker was civilly committed to the MSOP in March 2000.
In August, a special state appeals panel approved Coker’s petition for provisional discharge from the MSOP, concluding that he had made “great progress away from sexual dangerousness.”
Even so, the commissioner of Human Services and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman appealed the discharge, arguing that the judicial panel had relied on improper evidence. The appeal relied in part on opinions from two independent psychologists who said Coker was not ready for discharge, as well as multiple MSOP administrators.
But in a decision issued Monday, a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the August ruling approving Coker’s provisional discharge. The panel cited testimony from MSOP’s clinical director, Haley Fox, who said that Coker had not had any incidents of sexual or violent misconduct while at MSOP and that testing had not shown any “inappropriate arousal.” Another security staff member testified that he had accompanied Coker on about 30 trips into the community and that Coker had no behavioral problems, the ruling said.
The appeals court panel also noted that Coker’s therapists said they no longer regard him as sexually deviant and that he had aged out of the highest-threat age group for sex-crime recidivism.
The MSOP confines about 720 rapists, pedophiles and other sex offenders at secure facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Including Coker, only eight offenders have ever been approved by a court for provisional discharge, and no one has ever been fully discharged. In July, a federal judge declared the program unconstitutional for detaining offenders indefinitely without giving them a clear path toward release.