In this episode of Our America with Lisa Ling, the team looks at society and sex offenders. Unlike last season’s episode, this week Lisa looks at the case of just one person, Travis – a 17-year-old who was sentenced to 15 to 20 years for touching a 10 year olds breast. Just released from prison after 16 years, Our America follows his homecoming but also, takes a look at his past and the journey he faces going forward and being labeled a sex offender forever. Labeled for life. Lisa asks, “Does the punishment fit the crime?” and takes us along in the process to find the answers to that question.
As a survivor from the hands of a sex offender, I often look away from these shows. Oprah would interview someone and I would turn away and delete the episode. News would follow the Sandusky case…and I would do my best to read it quickly, take a deep breath and move forward. Perhaps it affects me differently than others but stories on sex offenders often take me back to a dark space of powerlessness and innocence lost. But this episode of Our America was different in many ways and opened my eyes to the possibility that perhaps one label doesn’t fit all but also reminds me that one moment has the power not just to put you in prison but also, to change many lives. Our America gave us an opportunity to see if from Travis’s side and question that perhaps it’s not a clear-cut world with the justice system…and clearly, it is not a perfect world either.
With delayed maturity, mental health issues and compulsive behavior that mirrored turrets syndrome, Travis found his trouble at a house party where he was goofing off with other kids. The next day, police showed up at his door and said he “touched a 10-year-old on top of her blouse for sexual pleasure.” As a 17-year-old, Texas tried him as an adult. Was it an example of his delayed behavior? His mother says two other girls there said they didn’t see it happen. But does that clear him? Awaiting his trial in jail, he was young and against the advice of his mom, he made a deal. Taking a plea deal and pleading guilty, he was given 5 years’ probation with strict curfews and rules. His attorney told him that if he took the plea deal, he could go home. After six months in jail, this looked like a lifeline so he took it and went home. Within a month of getting out of jail, he was out with neighborhood friends and broke curfew. For this, he ended up in prison for the full sentence of 20 years.
During the show, Lisa researches Travis’ case, the charges and his mental disabilities. Lisa uncovers notes in his case of police predicting his future behavior without even knowing him. Interesting. But there is always another side to the story, so Lisa wants to hear that as well. During the show Lisa tries to hear the story from the victim and talks to the victim’s mother. Protective as any mother might be, the victim’s mother tells Lisa that she still feels that Travis should be on the sex offender list. As Lisa dives deeper into the case she looks for more witnesses to help fill in some of the pieces of the story. Investigating an incident that happened 17 years ago, Lisa is finding out that many of the witnesses could not remember being questioned by the police and that two witnesses there said that it didn’t happen at all. Buried in the case notes, Lisa and Our America are digging for information that should have been looked at years ago for Travis. In one last push for information, Lisa reaches out to t0 the victim’s father who said that the victim was worried that she may have exaggerated what happened and even considered coming forward but was afraid she would go to jail or get in trouble. Finally, Lisa did speak to the victim and she didn’t want to be part of the show but she said, “Travis did plead guilty.” That’s the truth. He did.
So while my heart always lands next to the victim in any sex offender story, I understand that the world is not perfect, our justice system is not perfect and the sex offender registry needs to be reformed. Perhaps reform and reexamination will lead to a process that will help in cases such as the one highlighted by Our America but it’s hard to focus on reforming part of the fix in the Band-Aid when society is still bleeding from the original crime at the hands of so many others. Lisa Ling, our eyes have been opened. Seeing is the first step.