Sex offender to remain free despite new law

Associated Press Modified: May 8, 2012 at 8:01 pm •  Published: May 8, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A convicted sex offender who faces nearly two dozen charges in Utah but has remained free because of a legal loophole likely will never face trial or be confined to an institution, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

"He falls into this gray area," Utah County prosecutor Craig Johnson said. "For criminal prosecution, we are in an indefinite holding pattern. The proceedings are stayed, perhaps forever."

Lonnie Johnson, 39, was charged in 2007 with 21 sodomy and sex assault counts after police said he had inappropriate contact with his stepdaughter and her cousin. A year later, however, a judge deemed Johnson incompetent to stand trial due to a cognitive disorder.

He spent about two and a half years at Utah State Hospital while doctors worked to make him well enough for trial. But last year they said he had shown little improvement, and he was eventually set free after being deemed beyond treatment.

Prosecutors sought repeatedly to keep Johnson confined, at least long enough to stand trial, but last month 4th District Judge James R. Taylor finally said his hands were tied and Johnson would remain free indefinitely.

A legal loophole in Utah law at the time the charges were filed wouldn't allow a judge to consider Johnson's pending criminal case or his previous rape conviction in Washington state when determining whether he was a danger to society. The judge couldn't order an indefinite commitment to a state hospital.

The Utah Legislature passed a bill in March in response to outrage over Johnson's release that amended the law, allowing the judge to consider previous offenses, and the prosecutor, who is not related to the suspect, said he would seek to have him committed again once the new law took effect.

That happened Tuesday, but the prosecutor said he would not pursue the case because even the new law didn't provide the legal ammunition given the unusual circumstances of the felon's afflictions.

Doctors have testified at various competency hearings that Johnson has a cognitive disorder from birth that was made worse by a brain injury after he was thrown through a windshield in a 1993 car accident. Several doctors have said treatment to restore his competency would be futile because he also has the brain injury that cannot be fixed with treatment, meaning he could never be made well enough for trial.