STEVEN YODER — In late 2006, a public defender went before a Napa County judge to argue for his client’s freedom. Rex McCurdy, a 49-year-old man, had been detained for seven years at Atascadero State Hospital under a 1995 California law authorizing “civil commitment” of people who have been convicted of sex offenses, a practice that keeps them confined long after they have completed their sentences.
Seven years after McCurdy was committed, his lawyer, Jim McEntee, was trying to persuade a judge that his client was a low risk to reoffend. If he failed, McCurdy would be confined at the hospital indefinitely. Fortunately, the lawyer had heard of evidence that might tip the scales: a study done at Atascadero itself that could help his client.
McEntee called as a witness Jesus Padilla, one of Atascadero’s psychologists. Padilla was four years into a study of ex-offenders classified as SVPs who had been released on technical grounds. Padilla had tracked them to find out their recidivism rates, which he presumed would be high.
The recidivism rate that Padilla found for SVPs did not square with the 1995 law that created the program, which had called the people it targeted a “small but extremely dangerous [group of] sexually violent predators.” In short, the study called into question the legitimacy of the entire $270-million-a-year civil commitment program.
Shortly after his testimony, Padilla’s study was abruptly terminated. His records were confiscated, his hard copies were shredded, and he was forbidden to talk about his work. At first he pushed back and even tried to continue on his own. But as he explained in 2009, “It’s too hard to fight the system, you know.” In 2013, Padilla died of stomach cancer, his research unfinished. The whole incident might have been forgotten, if not for the work of law professors Tamara Rice Lave and Franklin Zimring, who excavated Padilla’s work in a 2018 American Criminal Law Review article and brought to light the ways in which the state tried to ensure that knowledge of it would die with him.