NEW YORK — Jurors were asked to decide Monday whether former Gov. George Pataki's decision to divert violent sex offenders into mental institutions after their prison terms ended was an abuse of power or a well-intended effort to protect the public.
The program initiated in 2005 was a "sham" attempt to "bypass the Constitution," plaintiffs' attorney Reza Rezvani said in closing arguments at a civil trial in federal court in Manhattan. "You know that the Constitution applies to everybody. ... No one is saying don't lock up the bad guys. But you do it right and you're fair."
Pataki's attorney, Abbe Lowell, told the jury of one man and seven women that what's most shocking about the lawsuit brought by six convicted sex offenders who were eventually freed is "what the plaintiffs did, not what the defendants did."
The plaintiffs "were mentally ill and dangerous and should have been committed," Lowell added as Pataki listened nearby from the defense table.
The case stems from Pataki's effort to use existing laws to direct prison officials to have the worst sex offenders evaluated for involuntary civil commitment once released from prison. The practice was halted in 2006 after a state court found that the 12 men who were committed should have been entitled to hearings before it happened. Some remained in psychiatric institutions for years afterward.
The summations Monday followed nearly three weeks of testimony, including that of plaintiffs who served lengthy prison sentences for sex assaults on minors. One, Louis Massei, testified that once committed to psychiatric care, he and the other convicts were never given any treatment.
"We were separated from the other patients," Massei said. "We were treated like `the experiment.'"
Pataki testified he used his executive authority only to order evaluations of sex offenders before they were freed, not to rob them of liberty. Defense lawyers noted that of the nearly 800 inmates examined, fewer than 200 were committed to mental institutions.
The jury must decide whether the defendants intentionally deprived the plaintiffs of constitutional rights and, if so, determine potential damages. Deliberations were expected to begin as early as Monday afternoon.