EDITORIAL: We need to know more

WE CAN ALL HOPE that the murderer of Lois Decker will spend the rest of his life in prison. He pleaded guilty to the crime of killing Mrs. Decker, 73, in her Hillsdale home last November and this week he was sentenced to 20 years to life for the crime plus additional years for stealing from the woman whose life he so violently ended. But his punishment resolves only one part of this disturbing case.

Nothing can undo the loss suffered by the family of Mrs. Decker. The extent of their pain, tinged by the fear and anger her murder invoked, was momentarily exposed in the courtroom Tuesday morning in their statements on the impact of the crime. And nothing but time will cover the scars to the community from the loss of a woman widely known and cherished as a friend and neighbor.

For everyone in this county, including those of us who did not know Mrs. Decker, her murder has raised questions that extend beyond a personal calamity. The man who admits he murdered her was a convicted sex offender and, according to the federal government’s own standards, he should have been deported to his native country of Bangladesh long before he caused her death.

The news coverage of Mrs. Decker’s murder, as reported here by Diane Valden, explains what we know about the crime. Those facts make it clear that the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, the State Police and the county District Attorney’s Office performed exactly as citizens would want them to in discovering the crime, apprehending the murderer and assembling the evidence that led to the guilty plea.

But other parts of the case cannot be easily understood or explained. The record of the man who killed Mrs. Decker shows that a federal Immigration Court ordered him deported to Bangladesh in 2008, following his conviction for having sex with a 12-year-old girl in Hudson. For that crime he was sentenced to three years in prison and classified as a Level 2 sex offender. At whatever point he completed his prison term, he was released and, apparently with the knowledge or inattention of federal officials, he rented a place to stay in Hillsdale.

The federal government, specifically the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division, could not have predicted that a person convicted of a felony sex crime would then commit murder. But how is it that a sex offender, not a U.S. citizen, under an order of deportation can simply re-enter a community where he might pose a danger to children? That wasn’t a hard call.

It’s not as if the Immigration and Customs Enforcement has ignored this type of problem. On April 27 of this year Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a report that discussed ways to improve its Secure Communities program. Among other functions, that program provides ways for ICE to share information with local law enforcement “to focus our limited immigration enforcement resources on high priority individuals, namely criminals or those who otherwise pose a threat to public safety or national security….”

It’s not a small task. ICE reports that in the federal fiscal year 2011 the agency “removed 396,906 individuals,” including 5,848 aliens convicted of “sexual offenses.” It says that was the largest number in the agency’s history. The approach ICE uses is prosecutorial discretion, putting convicted felons who are aliens at the top of its list of the people who must go. In a way, the front end of that process seems to have worked in the case of the man who would murder Lois Decker. He was identified as someone to deport. But then he was released with disastrous consequences.

Finding out why it happened and taking steps to prevent it from occurring again is an emergency. If this could happen to a convicted felon labeled as a sexual predator, how many others like him might there be? This isn’t a case of a secret terrorist cell. This is a question about people openly convicted in the United States of violent crimes.

If ICE officials have refrained from commenting until this case concluded, then the time has arrived for a full explanation of the facts. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Chris Gibson should demand the answers and require them to be made public.

The guilt-or-innocence phase of this case has ended, but the responsibility for determining why it ever could have happened in the first place is far from resolved.

 

 

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