“I didn’t want the attention,” said state district judge J. Manuel Bañales one afternoon last month, referring to the media spotlight that has been trained on his courtroom since the middle of May. That’s when he ordered fifteen sex offenders on probation in Corpus Christi to place warning signs in their yards reading “Danger, Registered Sex Offender Lives Here.” Then, when reporters discovered that one month earlier Bañales had ordered Robert Torres, a nineteen-year-old on probation for sexual assault of a child (once known as statutory rape), to abstain from sexual activity until he gets married, the light turned klieglike. The judge appeared on Nightline and Today, in London tabloids, and on the German and Japanese news wires. “I don’t enjoy the attention. I dread the attention,” he told me. “When I go to the store now, everyone knows me, and that didn’t use to happen. I hate the invasion of my privacy.” It was a curious comment, coming as it did at the tail end of a two-and-a-half-hour interview in which the judge had been supremely forthcoming about his decisions—so much so, in fact, that the last 45 minutes of our talk continued while the parties to a pending divorce and their various attorneys, meters steadily running, waited in the courtroom for a one-fifteen hearing. Meanwhile, I found myself staring at a freshly framed front-page article from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that waited to be hung on the wall by his desk. Beneath a headline that read “The Mind Behind the Sex Sign Controversy” was a long story about the limelight-averse judge. “I know I did the right thing, with the signs and with Torres,” said Bañales. “It’s within the law, and I am comfortable with that. But I did not truly imagine that what I did would have such an impact.”
The now-famous signs were intended to ratchet up community awareness of the sex offenders’ presence. Generally, sex offenders on parole (after being in prison) or probation (instead of going to prison) have to register with local law enforcement officials who include them in public Internet databases and notify everyone within a three-block radius of the offender’s residence. Because the vast majority of sex crimes are committed by someone the victim knows, these measures have been considered by many to be sufficient. But a recent pair of particularly heinous repeat offenses in the Corpus area, one committed by a man on probation, who continually abused a girl from the time she was eight until she was fifteen, inspired Judge Bañales to look for a more certain way of getting notice to neighborhoods. He decided that in appropriate cases he would require a warning sign to be displayed in the probationer’s yard, as well as a matching bumper sticker on his car and a replica of the yard sign in the windshield when he rides with friends.
Reaction was immediate and strong in both directions. Gerald Rogen, the 41-year-old president of the Coastal Bend Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, was at the courthouse on other business the morning Bañales gave out the signs. “I went in there and watched that circus,” he told me, “and I couldn’t believe what I saw. Boys would go up there, one by one and without attorneys, and he’d just tell them how it was. I walked up to a TV crew outside and said, ‘Can you believe this shit?’ And this little white newsgirl looked at me like I’d just stuck a turd under her nose.”
Judging by the letters to the editor in the Caller-Times, much of Corpus Christi shared the reporter’s favorable response to Bañales’ move. Rogen refused to fall in line. He took three of the probationers’ cases on a pay-if-you-can basis that afternoon, added the Torres case later, and immediately started a soundbite battle with the judge over cruel and unusual punishment, scarlet letters, the threat of vigilantism, and the sacred rite (or was it inalienable right?) of “teenagers kissing and grabbing boobs in the back seats of cars.”
But Bañales didn’t budge. He denied Rogen’s motions to reconsider the sign orders and invited him to appeal the cases. Rogen’s chances look bad: A 1999 addition to Texas law expressly states that a probationer shall give notice of his offense in “any manner required by the judge.” According to Robert Dawson, a criminal law professor at the University of Texas law school, that language specifically anticipates humiliation-as-deterrent measures. Nor is Bañales likely to be reversed on constitutional grounds. Yard signs don’t rise to the torture, draw-and-quarter level usually required to dust off the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.
Bañales conceded that his authority is not unlimited. “I can’t remember if it was Ted Koppel,” said Bañales, “or maybe Bryant Gumbel who asked me, when we talked about the signs, ‘Well, would you require a defendant to wear a sign around his neck saying he was a sex offender?’ Before he could finish his sentence, I said, ‘That might be a stretch.’”
“Is what he’s doing legal?” asked Dawson. “Unless you can find a constitutional problem—and I don’t think you can—it is. Now, is it a stupid idea? Of course. But that’s something else all together.”
But what’s so stupid about erring on the side of protecting the public from crimes so universally abhorred that in prison, sex offenders are detested by other inmates? Part of the problem with the yard signs is there is no typical sex offender; so the notion that everyone who commits a sex offense is a danger to the community is debatable. Sex offenses run from rape to flashing to consensual sex between underage teens, and the mind-sets that inspire them range from sexual sadism to puppy love. The sadists and the predatory pedophiles are so likely to repeat their crimes that they are generally considered beyond rehabilitation. If such a person ends up on probation or parole, a yard sign is one way to keep him in check. But it seems an awfully stiff penalty for someone like the