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September 16th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Just a few weeks ago, there was a flurry of activity in the news and on the Internet about whether a father who’s been convicted of rape should have parental rights once he gets out of prison.  The articles and blogs were predictably outraged at the thought, and indeed, there was a woman from Oregon in exactly that situation.  Her ex had been convicted of raping her and, since he was about to get out of the joint, he decided to ask for visitation with his child.  There being nothing in the law to prevent that from happening, a judge granted his request.

And the Internet went ape.  It wasn’t long before there were calls for laws to be passed prohibiting such a thing from ever happening again.  Obviously, there are arguments to be made on both sides.  Since we’re not dealing with a false allegation of rape or one made to gain an advantage in a custody case, granting parental rights to a rapist should raise red flags.  Is such a person to be trusted around a child?  If not, he could still have supervised visitation, with no chance of harm to the child.  On the other hand, a person who’s done his/her time has presumably paid the debt owed to society.  If we deny the ex-con parental rights, what other rights should he/she be denied?  Many states already deny such a person the right to vote.  What else might we dream up to continue the punishment long into the future?  Freedom of speech?  Maybe we should deny him the right to profess the Christian faith since, after all, what Christian rapes?  It’s a real issue and one not amenable to the easy answers of the self-righteous that are so common.

Now though, the shoe is on the other foot, and we’ll see if the ‘no parental rights for rapists’ crowd is consistent in their certainty that felons per se should lose all rights to their children.  Here’s the article (Daily Mail, 12/13/12).

It’s one of the strangest cases you’re likely to run across.  Last year, an Iowa woman named Tracey Richter was convicted of murdering a 20-year-old man named Dustin Wehde.  At the time, the case was 10 years old and, at the time of the slaying, Richter had been hailed as a hero for fearlessly protecting her home and three children from Wehde and the other man she said had broken in and threatened her.

But the objective facts of the case never added up.  For one thing, Richter’s story sounded more like a scene from a bad TV movie than anything from real life.  Her hair-raising tale of grasping for a pistol in the family’s gun cabinet while Wehde clutched at her ankle was moving, but didn’t seem to have much to do with the forensic evidence.  In fact, she’d shot Wehde 11 times using two different guns.  The last three shots were to the back of his head while he lay face down on her bedroom floor.  Police found no evidence of a second man.

But what they did find was a pink spiral notebook in Wehde’s car. Written in his hand, he discussed Richter’s ex-husband’s recruitment of him to kill Richter so he’d get custody of their kids and cease child support payments.   That notebook pretty much sealed the case for police and they discontinued their investigation.  Richter was a hero.

Or was she?  Interestingly, police never told anyone about finding the pink notebook.  They simply closed the case without revealing its existence.  So when a neighbor of Tracey Richter reported to them that Richter had mentioned the notebook to her, they figured she knew more than she’d let on up to then.  As the facts unfolded, it was Tracey Richter who’d decided to frame her ex-husband for home invasion and attempted murder.  She did that because he’d told her that he was going to try to get custody of the children.  Richter befriended Wehde who was learning impaired, invited him to her house, forced him at gunpoint to write the entry in the notebook and then shot him 11 times with her children in the next room.

The neighbor’s testimony about the notebook, plus the fact that her ex had never heard of Dustin Wehde, much less had any contact with him, plus the crime scene evidence were enough for a jury to convict Richter of murder, fraud and perjury.  She was sentenced to life in prison.

That brings us to the present.  Richter is in prison, but a family court judge has ruled that her parental rights remain unimpaired.  Her husband, Michael Roberts, has custody of the children, and has moved to California, but the judge ruled that he must bring the children, at his expense, to visit their mother in prison periodically.

Even stranger is the fact that the judge did so despite the fact that Richter contacted a Wisconsin sex offender and gave him Roberts’ social security number.  In ways I can’t begin to imagine, Richter blames Roberts for the predicament she’s in.

Worse still is the fact that Roberts is an Australian citizen who’s here with an expired visa and the family court judge has refused to allow him to return to his country where he has family and job opportunities.  Will immigration authorities pick him up, deport him and take his children?  I wouldn’t be surprised.  Meanwhile, their murderer mother has visitation rights.

Sac County Attorney Ben Smith said Thursday that it is unbelievable Richter maintains parental rights after a jury convicted her of shooting 20-year-old Dustin Wehde at their home in Early in 2001 while the children – then 3 and 1 – were one room away.

‘Do you think Tracey cared about the children when she stashed them in the room 15 feet from where she fired 11 shots?’ said Sac County Attorney Ben Smith today. ‘She should have lost any and all rights to make those kinds of decisions or to have an influence in her kids’ lives when she executed somebody.’ …

‘It’s just mindboggling how somebody that is convicted of murder, fraud and perjury still gets a say,’ he said.

‘And not only does she get a say, the spouse is ordered to travel 1,500 miles to facilitate visitation with the very person that was convicted of the murder but yet blames him for it. Can you imagine?’

Those are the words of a man who’s used to criminal court and doesn’t realize that family courts operate by different rules.

If a rapist who’s paid his debt to society can’t have contact with his children, you’d think a murderer who’s nowhere near completed her sentence (an may never do so) wouldn’t either.  But strangely, those who cried so loudly about the former are silent as the grave about the injustices being done to Michael Roberts and his kids.

Thanks to John for the heads-up.

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