Hamilton-Smith: Letter To Gay

Ed. Note: Portland criminal defense lawyer David Menschel noted on the twitters that there are now more people on sex offender registries than incarcerated. While mass incarceration is a well-recognized travesty, recognition of the burdens of SORA remains a mystery to many, who have no appreciation of the devastation it imposes for jobs, residence, disclosure, reporting and the normal accouterments of life. Not to mention violent retaliation by the unduly fearful and hateful.

While it’s an easy sell to explain why a kid urinating against a wall, or a teen sexting a pic of herself, isn’t really a “sex offender,” it’s far harder to understand why people convicted of the more repulsive offenses shouldn’t be pariahs. Below is a repost of Guy Hamilton-Smith’s Medium post to give you some insight into who these evil people may be. Bear in mind, the question isn’t whether they did wrong, but whether the punishment for the offense should be the walking death penalty of a life condemned to misery.


Ryan is the hardest part of my story to explain.

We have never met, nor will we, and yet he radically changed the course of my life.

The path that I’ve walked since law school was not one that I intended. I did not go to law school  to advocate for sex offenders. I went to hide. I went for lack of better ideas. I went because it interested me. I went because, while I was fortunate to have parents who put up money to retain counsel, I saw many who did not have adequate representation, nor families standing by their side.

The day after my arrest, I told my professors at school what had happened. I withdrew from graduate school at the end of that semester, where I studied psychology. Law school had never been on my radar. I asked my own lawyer one day after a pre-trial hearing if you could go to law school with a felony conviction.

And, so I went.

I pled guilty to a count of possession of child pornography in 2007. I was 22. I pled guilty because I was guilty. I was a lonely, awkward, bullied teen who was amongst the first generations to grow up with high-speed internet (or, indeed, the internet at all). Without delay, I encountered what writer Sage Webb refers to as ‘pixelated novocaine’ — internet porn. For anyone curious about the particulars of my crime, I did a Reddit AMA last October that you can peruse here.

But what I’m writing here is not really about my offense, though it is impossible to talk about him without talking about it.

I say that I went to law school to hide. Though I was open with my employer and my friends about my story, I worried what others would think of me if they knew. I wanted armor. I wasn’t a felon. I wasn’t a sex offender. I was an attorney. The Honorable. Esquire.

Ironic that I sought a profession held in such ill repute. I joked that I wasn’t sure which would make people hate me more, that I was an attorney, or that I was a sex offender.

I did not, as I said, go to law school to advocate for sex offenders. I burned with a mission to fight for people who lacked fighters, but not them. My best friend in law school suggested to me our 2L year that I would be very effective at it. I quickly discarded the idea. It terrified me.

Were I to advocate for sex offenders, it would betray my own secret shame.

I went to school. I took finals. I went to work. I saw friends and my parents. I dated. I complied with the registration laws. I finished my probation. I lived small. I valued the privacy that I had.

I did that for years.

Until Ryan.

 *     *     *   

In late 2013, the receptionist buzzed my office. It was an AP reporter on line 1. Was I the same Guy Hamilton-Smith that the Kentucky Supreme Court just ruled was ineligble to take the bar exam, and if so, did I have a comment? I don’t remember what I said, but that was how I’d learned that the last several years of my life and hundred thousand dollars in student loans were wasted, that a court battle I’d fought with my attorney (who offered me his services pro bono) for years ended in the worst way possible.

Compounding my terror, the reporter wrote a story about it, which was picked up widely. At first it was a trickle. Friends letting me know that I was in the local news. Then a deluge. The next day I was on the front page of every paper in Kentucky. National outlets ran with the story. I got mail. Mostly good, some bad. I slept with a knife.

I was out.

I wanted to die.

Jesse Ryan Loskarn

This was when I first heard Ryan’s name. By any other account, we had nothing in common. We moved in very different circles. He was a political operative in D.C., where he worked as the chief of staff for a United States Senator. Bright, charismatic, hard-working. Ryan was a rising star in conservative political circles. His future was bright.

Until his arrest on federal child pornography charges in December of 2013.

The following month he decided to end his life in his parents’ home.

His family, in what I can still only conceive of as a decision in equal measures astonishingly brave and agonizing, published the note that Ryan left behind. You can still read it here.

Ryan’s story was, in many ways, my own story, but for one, tragic difference. Ryan, like me, had suffered childhood abuse. Ryan, like me, had parents who loved him very much. Ryan, like me, had at first encountered child pornography inadvertantly. I sobbed into the autumn air from seventeen stories up on a balcony in 2006 when I was told the police were on the way. I pushed up on the railing and I looked at the pavement so far away. Jumping seemed like the only way out. I came back inside. Ryan didn’t. I still don’t know why.

Reading Ryan’s last words, I was compelled to do something I was dimly aware was insane. I needed to find out how to get in touch with Ryan’s parents. I needed to write them a letter, to try, if I could, to offer them some kind of meager comfort from a stranger.

And, so I did.

Some time later, I received a response in the mail.

Thus began what I would call an unlikely friendship. We’ve written letters. They’ve sent me books. I invited them to my wedding. We’ve talked about pain, and loss, and grief, and God, and purpose.

Ultimately, they’ve given me something much greater than friendship.

What follows is a letter I wrote to Ryan’s mother, Gay, on the eve of a presentation that I was to give on the topic of the sex offender registry.

  *     *     *

Dear Gay,

I have been working on putting my presentation together for the prison ministry conference and trying to figure out what it is exactly that I want to say. I know that I want to educate people about these issues — and I’ve got all that. The facts and the figures aren’t too hard to present. They’re not that hard to understand. It’s not tough to figure out that the biggest problem that people on the registry face when re-entering society are housing and jobs.

I ran through my presentation yesterday, and it all just seemed so…clinical. Which I guess that’s part of it. It’s hard to make statistics and statutes all that appealing. Then I got to Ryan, and how I’m going to talk about his story.

A passage from the note that he left behind keeps sticking out to me. That, because of his fall from grace, and the enormous amount of attention that was put on the same, that the details of his shame would be forever preserved. That there would be no escape.

In looking at the timeline of it, I realize that we were both struggling with that same notion at the same time, as it was in January of 2014 that I got the media attention I received over the KY bar, then, googling myself, realized that there was no escape from it. It would be a forever sort of thing. And it will be.

Honestly, had I had to confront that same realization at the time of my arrest, I’m not sure I can say whether I would have come back in from the balcony.

So I’m thinking about how to talk about re-integration and re entry for something like this. What does that mean? What does it *really* mean? We talk about housing and jobs and being a law-abiding member of society, and I had a nice little spiel all worked up about how those things are important.

But it’s all bullshit. Or, it’s not bullshit, it’s just missing the point.

It’s shame.

So I’m thinking about Ryan. I’m thinking about how, circa 2013, I was living a very small life, worried about how what would happen if people found out about me, about my past. Society tells me, and told Ryan, that we have no choice in the matter. That we have to be ashamed and afraid, and that we’re going to carry a brand to prove it. An indelible brand for the information age.

And I believed it. As Ryan did. As, I’d surmise, most people in this situation do. How can you not?

So then I read of Ryan’s passing, and had my crazy idea to send you a letter. Then, when we started communicating, I had the opportunity to take part in a documentary. The opportunity to initiate a lawsuit. The opportunity to give that talk to those high school kids. The opportunity to give this presentation. Once we win the lawsuit, I’m planning on being a lot more public via social media. I had high-minded ideals — that, perhaps, if I step out of my shell, perhaps I can do something for the next person who is sent into the fire. Perhaps I can do something for the numberless, nameless people who trudge in present day the same dark and anonymous paths that Ryan and I shared, and all those whom our actions caused harm to.

I’m going to save lives, I told myself, egotist that I am. And I guess I told myself that in part to combat the fear. Part of my presentation is going to be talking about a 2014 case where a couple of neo-nazis murdered a person on the registry and his wife and then, at sentencing, stated that child molesters don’t deserve to live (nevermind that this person was convicted decades previous of having sex with an adult woman who was mentally disabled). I think about that, and think to myself “Gosh, I’m probably not doing any favors to my lifespan by being out and open about this.”

And, maybe that’s true. I’ve never been very good at predicting the future.

But, I’m trying to write out what it is I really want to say — about re-integration, about Ryan, and about me. This idea of shame keeps popping up, and the words from Ryan’s letter. He used the word — shame.

And so I wrote out “shame kills” and looked at it for a while, writing and re-writing what it is I’m trying to get at. And something occurred to me that I never expected, that shot me through the heart…and that’s the reason for this long, rambly letter.

I’m thinking about how shame can kill so fast — faster than bullets, because it can move at the speed of 24-hour news cycles and tweets and internet searches. That it can become so overwhelming to a person, all at once, that — like Ryan — one feels that there is no way out but to take your own life.

But it kills slowly, too. And when it does kill you in such a fashion, in a way, it’s much more insidious, because you find that despite being dead, you’re still walking around. You’re still talking to people and going to the store and laying in bed at night. You’re still alive, but not living. You’re cut off from everyone, and even the very light of the soul is threatened to be snuffed out by it. You’re a husk, managing to fake it, until, perhaps mercifully, your body gives out.

Me, I’ve known shame so long that it’s presence was assumed to be normal, in whatever form it took. From being mercilessly taunted as a young boy, to trying to numb everything out with porn and sex and video games, to the fallout from my arrest and conviction and media attention from the bar. It’s something I would wake up with in the morning, and go to bed with at night.

So I’m finding something. That, slowly, as I begin to step out onto this stage, to show up, to commit to telling the truth, to being open, and honest…that these scales of shame are slowly falling away. That I am beginning to not care that this is a forever thing, and beginning to wrap my arms around it. To turn this place of low-light that society expects me to reside in and turn it into a garden. To take this toxic shame that’s supposed to number my days, and turn it into grace.

I started on this path of being open because I saw it as a duty to others, a duty that Ryan and you and your family showed me that I had. That, I should try, if I could, to not let shame claim another life.

But shame had claimed mine from the start. The last life I expected to be saving was my own.

So I want you to know it, to know that, as I wrote in my first letter to you, that Ryan’s death was not in vain. And what he and you and your family have given and left is playing out for me on a personal level in ways in which I never could have anticipated, and which I am only beginning to understand the enormity of.

Thank you for everything.

__________________

Ed. Postscript: Meet your monster. In the aftermath of Brock Turner and the Persky Recall, it became overwhelmingly clear that people have no grasp of what it means to be on the sex offender registry, or even who ends up there and why. As the numbers have grown, this will be as big, if not bigger, a societal catastrophe than mass incarceration. It’s time to take a hard look at who this is harming. SORA protects no one. Sex offenders have a singularly low rate of recidivism, despite the Supreme Court’s reliance on junk science. SORA has created a permanent underclass and most people are blind to it.

33 comments on “Hamilton-Smith: Letter To Gay

  1. Jeffrey Gamso

    Interesting reading as I’m getting ready to do my second presentation of the weekend at the NARSOL (National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws) annual conference.

    As David Feige said yesterday, as I suspect other speakers I didn’t hear may have said, as I’ll be saying this morning, data and information are great educational tools. It’s stories that move people. I expect I’ll quote what Stalin is supposed to have said: “The death of one person is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic.”

    1. SHG Post author

      The problem with stories moving people is that they are just as likely to move people the wrong way. Data is cold, but stories can be examples in support of data or used inductively to manufacture hysteria and outrage. Say hi to Feige for me.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s a sad commentary* on people that they need the rhetorical device of sad stories to make them “understand.” It’s effective, but it’s too easily abused and devolves to emotionalism rather than reason. People tend to see the solution in fixing the story rather than fixing the underlying problem.

      *Not even gonna mention the reply button, old man.

  2. REvers

    I suppose I just wasn’t paying attention, but I totally missed the day when every sex offender magically became a pedophile.

  3. RAFIV

    Shame and Fear, two of our more primal and powerful motive forces, clash in this debate. On some level I fear that the breakdown of traditional social coping mechanisms (Church/synagogue and belief in some manner of redemption, belief in just punishment and having paid ones dues to society) and trust in social institutions (The Academy to provide fact based data, the legislature to make reasonable laws and judges to apply the fairly) only make the problem all the more intractable.

    I fully admit my own bias here (not that what i think about anything matters to anyone but me). People should not be judged forever for the worst choice they made; yet sometimes that choice is indicative of their nature. And there is so little trust and room for finding a just solution.

      1. RAFIV

        I am against Registration. They are being used to stigmatize men and women, some of whom did nothing more than streak naked, and others who committed crimes decades ago and have had no contact with the system since. Hell, they routinely are used by Realtors as a metric of neighborhood safety. This has no social utility.

        But these abominations arose out of the public’s lack of trust in the justice system. Reason and an appeal to fundamental fairness ring hollow. I don’t know how we overcome the fear. Even an appeal as moving and genuine as above will be met with scoffing.

        1. SHG Post author

          This didn’t arise out of public mistrust of the system, but public hysteria that pedos who couldn’t control their rapist urges were living next door about to rape their babies and SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!!!

  4. Cowardly Lion

    When I was 8 years old one of my father’s junky friends handed me a Penthouse magazine, prematurely jumpstarting my interest in pornography. Later, when I was 15, I was sexually assaulted by a man on a lonely subway platform. Somehow, I’ve never been tempted to look at child pornography. Despite a wide-ranging set of interests in porn, I’ve never even accidentally come across images of exploited children, online or anywhere else. After 30 years of experience with adult content, it is my expert opinion that child pornography is not just laying around waiting for you to come across it.

    The net result of your sharing this story is not my sympathy. It is deepened anger that yet another white kid is getting away with a horrific crime without serious punishment. There are very real victims of child pornography. The most vulnerable victims. Does it move me that Guy ‘cried when confronted with someone that produced child pornography’? No. I want to know he cried when Bubba raped him in prison -continuously for years.

    Whether you like it or not, many, many others agree with this sentiment. And it’s shaping public opinion, which shapes public policy. I’d try another angle. The one that’s going to work with the Libs like me is your bread and butter: tough on crime means tough on crime…And the defendants we most want to save will be hit first and worst.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ll let Guy speak for himself, but I take some comfort in the fact that the carceral hive mind lives, whether on the right or left. I have no doubt many will agree with your sentiment. People always lust to punish others, even if they differ on who their preferred victim should be. They just need someone to hate, and if possible, dream about being raped by Bubba (racist?) in prison.

    2. Guy Hamilton-Smith

      Hi Cowardly Lion,

      Thanks for sharing. My story is what my story is, and you are certainly free to have your opinion of it. I’m sorry for your experiences, and nowhere have I suggested that there are neither victims nor that I should not have been punished. I respectfully disagree that I “got away” with anything.

      Also, I haven’t been raped since I was 8 (sorry to disappoint you), and I don’t blame that for what happened. I’ve always accepted responsibility for my actions, and I always will.

      Guy

      1. Cowardly Lion

        Guy,

        My comments were for SHG, your host, not you personally. I’m sorry for your personal suffering and glad you are working hard to make something positive out of your life. I also made that journey, though for much different crimes.

        As a class, I and society hold very little sympathy for sex offenders. As evinced by your host’s editorial note, your story fits into a much larger conversation about criminal justice reform that has been happening here for more than a decade.

        You served no time incarcerated for your crime. Brock Turner served a laughably short sentence. My point is, in the war for criminal justice reform, leading with stories like yours does not help the cause.

        I hope you never forget the victims of your crime. I hope you keep recovering from the victimization you suffered. I hope Scott is smart enough to get back on message. While you pine for a chance to take the bar exam, impoverished men and women languish in prison for victimless crimes. If you do become a lawyer, I hope you focus on them too.

          1. Cowardly Lion

            It’s not weaseling. I intentionally did not apologize for my words. Unlike you, I know that honesty without compassion is cruelty and it’s not my intention to be cruel.

            Did I use inflammatory language? Yes. For effect. But I firmly believe the Guys and Brocks of the world need to suffer a lot more for their crimes while the Erics and Philandos suffer a whole lot less.

            1. SHG Post author

              There are two ways to look at a broken system. Fix it for everyone or make those who, in your generic opinion, don’t suffer enough suffer more. The former is what people like me try to accomplish. The latter is carceral, racist and twisted.

              And lacking the balls to reply to Guy after your “inflammatory language” is cowardly indeed. So you’re tough in a vacuum, but couldn’t tell Guy to his face you wished he would get raped? You weaseled, no matter how hard you try to deny it. As I keep telling you, it’s all there in black and white for all to see. Nobody gives a shit how you try to spin it.

            2. Cowardly Lion

              “Nobody gives a shit how you try to spin it.”

              Good thing Cowardly Lions are not very hung up on what other anonymous people give a shit about.

              Now you’re getting the picture though. Instead of realizing I don’t literally want someone to be raped, you and this hugbox of group thinkers are completely hungup and clutching pearls about some inflammatory words.

              Much like the public will crater and clutch their pearls about your defense of felons who victimized children in sex crimes. But honestly, not my blog. If you want to destroy your credibility with the people you need to convince to see things differently in order to actually change a god damn thing for blacks, browns, or whites…in the criminal justice system…Be my guest.

        1. Lion Tamer

          Got bad news for you, Cowardly. The numbers aren’t what your fantasy world imagines.

          White Black Hispanic
          U.S. population 62.1% 13.2% 17.4%
          Jail incarceration 47.4% 35.4% 14.9%
          State & federal incarceration 33.6% 35.4% 21.6%
          Life sentence 33.4% 48.3% 14.4%
          Life without parole sentence 33.5% 56.4% 7.4%
          Death row population 42.5% 41.7% 13.0%

          Disproportionate for sure, but white guys don’t get a pass. Grow up. And wishing prison rape on anybody is fucking sick.

          1. SHG Post author

            Someone like CL has no clue how many black and brown guys we walk out of court because they never hear about them, or how many white guys go down for 121 months. They heard headlines and social justice bullshit, and lacking any actual knowledge, believe it’s true. This is one of the biggest obstacles to reform, the toxic combination of absolute certainty and fundamental factual ignorance.

        2. Guy Hamilton-Smith

          Cowardly Lion,

          It seems a strange thing to me to both be sorry for my victimization and yet wish more of it on me.

          It was not up to me that I did not serve time. I walked into court on sentencing day not knowing if I would be going home that night — it was an open plea. I had resolved that I would accept whatever the outcome with a mindset of penitence, as a way to try to make amends for my wrongs. If that meant prison, it meant I would be respectful of the COs and rules that I would have to follow, do what I was told, not start trouble. The judge did not send me to prison, but I carried that same mindset throughout my probation.

          But if I could have traded five years in prison for the registry, I would have gladly done so. Such a punishment would, at least, have a terminus.

          I’d surmise Brock Turner likely feels similarly.

          But it was not his call. Nor was it mine.

          I have worked for nearly a decade in state and federal criminal defense. I’ve volunteered my time with prison ministry, organizations that work with people coming out of jails and prisons to help them find jobs and housing, and done volunteer work with the Innocence Project as well. I’ve done death penalty mitigation work. I’m well aware of the larger discussion, and I’ve put blood, sweat, and tears into it.

          I’ve also worked with men and women who were the victims of prison rape.

          It is, perhaps, less ideal than you imagine it to be.

          Guy

          1. Cowardly Lion

            “It seems a strange thing to me to both be sorry for my victimization and yet wish more of it on me.”

            Let’s get something straight: I do not literally want you or anyone else to be raped in prison. Unlike you, I am not a lawyer or even an educated man. Sometimes we say things for effect that are uncouth.

            That said, you deserved more punishment for your crimes. Your behavior supported the sexual exploitation of children. You should have spent time in prison AND be registered for the rest of your life. I don’t particularly care whether or not you think your cured or not a pedophile or anything else. If you are or were ever turned on by that material, the public deserves to know where you are in proximity to their children.

            That also said I do applaud you for turning your life around. That’s not easy.

            Are my views complicated? Yes. But I’m being honest with you.

            1. Jay

              Point of clarification: You didn’t have to share that you are an ‘uneducated man’. Your ignorance is as obvious as your hatred.

    3. Lee Keller King

      “Despite a wide-ranging set of interests in porn, I’ve never even accidentally come across images of exploited children, online or anywhere else. After 30 years of experience with adult content, it is my expert opinion that child pornography is not just laying around waiting for you to come across it.”

      Are you perhaps surfing a different Internet than the rest of us? It is only a click or two away, brother. You know this, or you are in severe denial.

      For what its worth, the Bible says to forgive your enemies and don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Those instructions are not for the offender’s benefit, but for the benefit of the one that has been injured.

      Don’t let your hate for what was done to you consume you.

      1. Frank

        Not to mention that it’s extremely difficult to tell the difference between a 17 year old (child porn) and an 18 year old (legal). Especially the phenotypes you find in Asia and the Far East. 18 USC 2257 exists because a porn actress lied about her age (and used fake ID).

        And I could mention a certain star in South America who has the body of a 12 year old but is in fact 27 (older now, but that was the age when a man in the US was about to be convicted for owning one of her movies).

        The issue is a hell of a lot more complicated than the black/white thinkers want us to believe.

        1. Lee Keller King

          And isn’t it ironic that the underage porn star you reference owns all the rights to the only porno she made after turning 18? (Which she produced and directed, I believe).

          But I digress. . .

  5. Pseudonymouskid

    Dear Papa,

    Let’s quit playing around with fancy registrations and bring back banishment. Our natural enemy, Canada, would love to host our pariahs, I’m sure. They are even more sophisticated than we are, after all. If the lowlifes have to stay, a more visible reminder of their shame should be implemented. I’m thinking a bright yellow sign or something that offenders would have to wear forever. There’s more blood lust than ever could be sated.

    Best,
    PK

    1. SHG Post author

      I recall a sci-fi story from my youth where the pariahs were no longer sentenced to prison, but sentenced to emit an horrible odor so everyone would know who they were and no good person would ever go near them. I loved dystopian sci-fi as a kid. Not so much as an adult.

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