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AUSTIN -- Aaron Jernigan had just started college at age 18 and was planning a career as a music teacher when he met a girl at a party and his whole world changed.
Now 25, Jernigan finished a four-year prison sentence instead of a four-year degree.
He is trying to get on with his life, but a year out of prison he still cannot find work and has had to move twice because he will forever carry with him the black mark of a registered sex offender.
"I was pretty much just a regular old kid in high school," he said. "And they kinda threw away the key on me."
Last week, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a bill that would have given people such as Jernigan the chance to try to have their names removed from the Texas sex offender registry. Perry said the measure approved by legislators failed to protect young victims.
For Jernigan and other sex offenders like him, who got involved with young people close to their own age, the veto was a disappointment and a setback.
"We were already ready to get everything settled and get our lives back," Jernigan said.
His life started a downhill trajectory in 2002, when he was attending South Plains College in West Texas, not far from Lubbock.
A girl he met at a party told him she was 16. He said she had a car and driver's license. The two hit it off, one thing led to another, and then the girl's grandmother walked in, Jernigan said.
He learned in court that the girl was actually 14. Had she really been 16, he could have used a legal defense that is available in cases involving consensual sex between young people whose age difference is three years or less.
Jernigan pleaded guilty instead of taking his chances with a jury and risking a long prison term. Still, he knew he would do time and end up on the registry of sex offenders.
"It kind of really messed my world up," Jernigan said.
He had never before been in trouble with the law, he said.
After his encounter with the young girl, his hopes of becoming a teacher were over.
Convicted of sexual assault, he will be required for life to put his name, address, photo and employer on the state sex offender registry.
While in prison, Jernigan met the woman who is now his wife. He has been free for a year, and he said their small family is doing well in North Texas, but he is frustrated that he cannot find work to support his wife and stepdaughter.
It's even been tough for him to return to school, Jernigan said. When he applied for automotive training, he said, the school rejected him because he was a sex offender.
"The only jobs open to offenders such as myself are trucking jobs and night-shift jobs, where you'll never see your family," he said.
This year, Jernigan found out about a bill by state Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, that could have helped him get his name off that offender list.
The measure would have allowed people such as Jernigan, who were 21 or younger and had consensual sex with someone who was at least 14 and not more than four years younger than them, to petition a judge to remove their name from the sex offender registry.
Current law does not provide adult offenders any way to petition a judge to be removed from the list.
Smith said his bill was meant to allow law enforcement to concentrate its energy and resources on dangerous sexual predators on the offender registry by weeding out those who made youthful indiscretions.
"To the extent that list is diluted with nondangerous people, it undermines the purpose," he said.
About 55,000 people statewide are on the sex offender registry. A total of 869 are in El Paso County, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
In a response to Perry's veto, Smith wrote that the measure was one of the most "morally compelling" bills he had ever filed.
The bill cleared the House with an overwhelming majority, and was approved unanimously in the Senate.
"I believe teens involved in these relationships have committed a sin, but I don't believe -- in most cases -- that that sin should put them on a list that will literally ruin the rest of their lives," Smith wrote.
Robert Riley, first assistant public defender in El Paso County, said he sees cases such as Jernigan's a lot, and there should be some differentiation for offenders that are put on the registry.
"There really are horrible, heinous people, and there are other people who are young and in love or people who get drunk" and make a mistake, he said.
Unless a person is acquitted or the case is dismissed, he said, those involved in sex offenses are almost certain to end up on the registry. That makes the cases hard to settle, and it clogs the judicial system, Riley said.
"The law is intended to ensure they're not school bus drivers or teachers, but some of these people can't even get jobs as dishwashers because they have that big black mark," Riley said.
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, was one of 28 lawmakers who voted against the bill. The former assistant district attorney said he agreed with Smith that the current registry was problematic. But, he said, the bill would not have fixed it and might have allowed some predators to slip through the cracks.
Instead of allowing for the exemption of an entire category of sex offenders, Moody said, the law should be changed to make the registration requirement based on the risk of a person committing another sex offense.
"You need to find some middle ground, where those who aren't a future danger can be moved out of the system and those who are a future danger can be watched with a closer eye," he said.
El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza said Perry made the right decision in vetoing the bill.
Many cases involving two young people in a consensual relationship, he said, are resolved without a sex-offense conviction that requires registration.
If the case is not resolved, Esparza said, then usually it involved some type of criminal behavior that would merit the punishment of registration.
"The reality is they were convicted of a sex offense, and the offenses that do require sex offender registration are offenses that I think the community would want to know about," Esparza said.
Smith said he would work again to pass legislation to allow young adults involved in so-called Romeo-and-Juliet cases to eventually have the taint of the sex offender registry removed from their lives, but only if Gov. Perry changes his mind or Texans elect a new governor in 2010.
Jernigan said he hoped lawmakers would do something to help.
"We're all human. We all make mistakes sometimes," he said. "I really hope they pass this bill, so people like me ... we can all just get our lives back and get on with it."
Tags: sex, sexual, offender, issues, sex offender, sexual offender, romeo & juliet, texas,
Location: Austin, Texas, United States (load item map)
Marked as: approved
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