Over a chorus of objections from state authorities and medical experts, a man convicted of raping three teenage girls in the early 1990s was granted conditional release by a judicial panel last week from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).

Christopher Coker, 47, who in 1991 abducted and raped a 15-year-old girl under a bridge, and then raped two other girls less than a year later, has been approved to live under heavy surveillance in a halfway house after a three-judge state judicial panel ruled that he had shown “great progress away from sexual dangerousness.”

The Minnesota Department of Human Services and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman both vowed Wednesday to appeal the judicial panel’s ruling, which could delay or ultimately prevent Coker’s release into the community.

The Coker case stands out because it is rare for a sex offender to be discharged from the MSOP amid opposition from nearly all of the parties involved. Two independent psychologists who evaluated Coker testified that they opposed his petition for provisional discharge; three MSOP administrators also did not support his discharge.

In addition, one judge on the panel that approved Coker’s petition for release wrote a rare dissenting opinion, arguing that his “lack of cooperation with his treatment team” and opposition to terms of his discharge plan made him unfit for living in the community.

The panel’s decision to grant Coker’s release, over these many objections, reflects the intense pressure the state is facing to reform the MSOP, which was declared unconstitutional in June by a federal judge. The judge, Donovan Frank of the U.S. District Court in St. Paul, has called the MSOP “draconian” and “clearly broken,” in large part because so few offenders are ever released from the program.

Only five offenders have been granted provisional discharge from the MSOP in its 20-year history; however, three of these offenders have been discharged just this year. The judge has ordered the state to propose ways to bring the program up to constitutional standards or face possible reforms imposed by the court. A court hearing on the proposed remedies is set for Sept. 30.

Appeal planned soon

“This is highly unusual,” said Freeman, who said his office intends to appeal the discharge ruling within 15 days. “I can’t remember a case where every single medical examiner has said, ‘No, this guy should not get out,’ and two of the judges said, ‘Yes.’ … We think public safety calls out for this guy not to get out at this time.”

According to court documents, Coker in 1988 at age 20, was charged with promoting prostitution by coercing a 16-year-old runaway to prostitute herself. He forced the girl to have sex with him four times over a 24-hour period and also forced her to have sex with a person she believed to be his brother, court documents say.

In 1991, Coker forced a 15-year-old girl to go with him under a bridge, where he choked her and threatened to kill her if she screamed. He then raped and sexually assaulted the girl. Then, in May 1992, Coker raped another 15-year-old girl whom he met on the street and led away from friends to an isolated area. Less than three months after that rape, he lured a 17-year-old girl to a “dark area near a bridge,” choked her and ordered her to remove her clothes. Coker then raped her, stole her purse and took some of her clothes so that she could not follow him, court documents say.

Escapes, misconduct

Coker has a history of escaping from facilities. In June 1994, he twice absconded from a halfway house while he was on supervised release. On one of these occasions, Coker was picked up by police when a group of young girls could not convince him to leave their car after he persuaded them to give him a ride, court documents say.

While in prison, Coker continued to engage in sexual misconduct. A female guard reported multiple incidents of inappropriate sexual behavior by Coker. He had his telephone privileges suspended because of “a continued pattern of abusive telephone calls to private female citizens that were inappropriate and harassing in nature,” court documents said.

But it was Coker’s recent testimony before the three-judge panel that most concerned Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith, who wrote the dissenting opinion opposing his discharge. Smith expressed concern that Coker would not accept certain terms of his discharge plan — including limits on his access to the Internet and restrictions on his ability to have a sexual relationship with his fiancée while living at a halfway house.

“His lack of trust and at times lack of cooperation with his treatment team in his current setting are strong indicators of his likely behavior in a less structured setting,” Smith wrote.

Twitter: @chrisserres