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Monday, May. 28, 2001

In this month's Vanity Fair, an article by David McClintick entitled "Fatal Bondage" chronicles the crimes of serial killer J.R. Robinson, who murdered six or more young women in the Midwest. Robinson's crimes apparently began in the mid-80s. Yet he was caught only last year.

While the article itself is excellent, Vanity Fair misleadingly plays up the "evil Internet" angle in promoting the article. Its tabloid-style cover blurb screams "Bleeding Kansas: The Shocking Story of the Internet's S&M Serial Killer." And the article's heading notes that Robinson "used the Internet and other lures to kill at least six women."

We can still use the Internet to save future crime victims. However, we must set up the proper mechanisms to accomplish this — both by tracking information on prior criminal offenses and suspicious disappearances, and by allowing potential victims to register with websites information that can help determine whether they either have been abducted or have voluntarily disappeared.

The Internet as Culprit?

The Internet certainly played a role in helping Robinson gain access to several of his victims and near-victims, with whom he communicated online to arrange for sexual S&M trysts. But in tracing Robinson's long string of victims, evidence shows that he was also able to easily find murder victims without the Internet's help.

According to McClintick, Robinson, a businessman, convinced a charitable organization that he was a philanthropist seeking to help unwed mothers. The unwed mother who was referred to him is now believed to be dead. Once she "disappeared," her daughter was "adopted" by Robinson's relatives.

Robinson also found plenty of other offline ways to find his victims. He offered a promising, local young honor student a corporate internship. He found a desperate single mother, with a disabled daughter, through a newspaper personal ad. And after serving a prison term for committing a financial crime, he convinced the prison librarian to move with him to his hometown.

In short, Vanity Fair's sensationalistic portrayal of Robinson as an "Internet killer" is somewhat off the mark. In truth, he should be more accurately seen as a killer who sometimes used the Internet to aid him in committing several of his crimes.

The Internet as Solution?

Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of McClintick's incisive article is its description of how Robinson was able to strike again and again — largely because his victims (and others) were ignorant of his past.

For instance, the local honor student who appears to have been Robinson's first murder victim, would likely never have associated with Robinson had she known of his history of financial fraud.

These women died at Robinson's hands, but in a way, they also died because they lacked information. Just as Robinson used the Internet to find some of his victims, could the Internet also be used to kill off a future Robinson's chances to murder, and then evade justice for decades? I think so.

By increasing information both about suspects' behavior and potential victims' whereabouts, the Internet can be the solution to the information deficit problem that gave Robinson his crucial chance to kill again and again.

Lost Women, Lost Chances

McClintick reports that, ironically enough, police were alerted to one victim's disappearance by another one of her Internet correspondents, who had expected to hear from her, but did not. Just as use of the Internet had placed this woman in jeopardy, it had also connected her to someone who cared enough to alert officials to her disappearance.

That worried correspondent was a lone individual. Today, much more sophisticated, pro-active systems can be imagined, and could be implemented, to deter crime and to ensure, at the very least, that a killer's first killing is his last.

Such systems could take two basic forms: those that increase available information about suspicious behavior and past criminal history, and those that increase information about the whereabouts of potential crime victims.

Websites on Suspicious Behavior and Past Criminal History

For example, suspicious disappearances could be posted on a searchable website — along with the name of the person with whom the disappeared was last seen.

Searchable websites could also allow criminal histories to be checked. Megan's Law currently requires child sex offenders to register their names and addresses. But this information is only Internet-accessible in some states. It should be made available online, nationwide.

This might not be able to be done through federal legislation. The Violence against Women Act, which tried to impose a registration requirement, was struck down by the Supreme Court on federalism grounds. But it certainly could be done state-by-state.

Police could also wholly or partially open crime files to the public through the Internet — at least to the extent that doing so would not impede their investigation. The disappointing performance of police in the Robinson case is only one example supporting opening information on crime to the public, rather than simply centralizing it with the police alone. Especially when the police close cases that victims would like to stay open, why not put the information collected so far on the Internet?

The Internet has the potential of being able to help catch as many, if not more, criminals as "America's Most Wanted." It also has the potential to stop crime before it happens, by alerting people who are dealing with ex-offenders to be careful.

Ex-offenders may claim a privacy right in their whereabouts. But that right is far outweighed by the need of potential victims to know with whom they are dealing. And it is not only children who need protection: Shouldn't an adult also be able to learn whether his or her date is a former murderer or rapist?

Of course, rehabilitation is always a real possibility — but that's an argument a former offender can make, and prove. People dealing with a former offender should not have to risk their lives because they are acting in ignorance. A felony is not a private fact.

Websites on Victim's Whereabouts

The web could also be employed to save potential victims from becoming victims not just by educating them about the criminal history of those they meet, but also by making sure they do not "disappear," as Robinson's victims did.

Signatures and fingerprints could be voluntarily registered at a website so that purported letters and money requests could be cross-checked after a disappearance. And individuals moving alone to a strange city — as was the case with several of Robinson's victims — could voluntarily check-in at the website, using a password only they would know. Peer-to-peer check-ins by phone could also be instituted.

To those with strong networks of family and friends, such measures may seem paranoid or unduly invasive of privacy. But for those who have no one to check up on them, like some of Robinson's victims, the web could provide a support network that could prevent crime.

Such concerns, also, can be overstated. Realistically, for most people — especially women, who are rarely crime suspects but are often crime victims — the threat that their information will be used against them by the government is not a serious one.

Yet the threat that they will be victims of crime whose lives will depend on whether they can be located is quite real. Just ask the five women whose bodies were left by Robinson to decompose in metal barrels in storage spaces he had rented.

Check-in sites like those I have described could meet police departments' frustrating complaints that they cannot immediately investigate missing persons claims with hard evidence that a "disappearance" is really an abduction. Police departments could then be prodded to act in the limited window of time during which an abducted person will still be alive.

Practical problems with such sites would have to be ironed out, but the current situation — which opened the way for Robinson's crimes — makes it worth the effort.

Making the Internet a crime culprit is too easy. Thinking of ways it can act as a crime police officer, or a victim's rights advocate, is a more constructive route.

FindLaw columnist Julie Hilden is a freelance writer. A graduate of Yale Law School, she practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Her memoir, The Bad Daughter, was published by Algonquin Books in 1998, and she is currently working on a novel.

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