A Big Brain on Bad Sex

The wine list at Chili's Grill & Bar is pretty lame, but my subject is too young to appreciate a good Pinot Grigio anyway. Fourteen-year-old Chris Cottrell is the author of the just-passed Proposition 103, also known as Chris' Law, a constitutional amendment that will prevent accused sexual predators from posting bail. Chris, chaperoned by his father, turns out to be a grown-up trapped in the body of a boy. He's well-informed and polite but has an answer for every question -- no "I dunno's" from this kid.

New Times: You authored a proposition that keeps sex offenders from posting bail. What's the story?

Chris Cottrell: I wrote Chris' Law for Teen Pact, which is a government class that takes place at the capitol. Part of the homework is you have to write a bill for the mock legislature there, so I wrote this one, and then I called my senator and told him I wanted to come talk to him about it.

NT: I'm guessing Senator Dean Martin was expecting something other than what you delivered, probably something more like, "Everyone under 15 should be given free access to skate parks."

Cottrell: Well, yeah, I was 12 at the time. He was like, "Wow, this is really good, but it must already be a law." So then he looked it up, and it wasn't. He thought it was good legislation, and we made a plan to introduce it the next year. But, yeah, he did seem kind of surprised.

NT: Well, it's not every 12-year-old who's thinking about sex offenders.

Cottrell: Well, what prompted me to write the bill for Teen Pact is that some members of my family were sexually molested by our former baby sitter, back when we lived in Texas. He got convicted, but then he was out on bail while he awaited appeal. It's been three years now, and he hasn't been brought to justice; he's still out on bail.

NT: So he was convicted of molesting your siblings. He received no sentence?

Cottrell: Yeah. He got 10 years probation. He was 19, and he molested a kid in another family that lived by us. When we were still living in Texas, and he was out on bail, we would see him all the time. We saw him at church every Sunday. He would kind of stare at us at church, and laugh. It was really bad. I wanted to make sure that didn't happen to other people.

NT: How much of Chris' Law is about revenge against that guy?

Cottrell: None! It's not about revenge. I'm not trying to get back at him. I'm trying to keep other people from having to go through that. To have to see someone who has hurt their family walking around free, without the justice they deserve.

NT: Chris' Law passed with 80 percent of the vote, even with loud ACLU opposition.

Cottrell: Yeah. The ACLU thought we shouldn't punish people for what they haven't done yet. But it's our prerogative to keep people who have probably done something wrong away from innocent people.

NT: But how does it work if the person who's been arrested hasn't yet been charged with evidence?

Cottrell: Actually, there's a provision in the bill that says they can be denied bail "when the proof is evident or the presumption great." Which sets very, very high standards for people after they've been convicted, so they can't be out on bail. It's not for someone who has just been accused, but for cases where there's lots of proof that they've molested someone, like multiple witnesses. Or if the judge thinks the guy who was arrested is guilty, he can use [Chris' Law] to deny bail.

NT: Why did you include the distinction of "sex with a minor younger than 15" in the bill's language?

Cottrell: Because it was brought up in committee that sometimes it could be like you're in high school and you're 18 and your girlfriend is 16, and she gets mad at you and decides to get even, so she says you raped her. So it protects people in those situations -- where it's really two kids but one is a legal adult.

NT: Won't Chris' Law contribute to overcrowded jails?

Cottrell: I'd say that it's not a matter of overcrowded jails, the point is keeping kids safe. It's about people who lost their rights when they molested or raped somebody. When you talk about overcrowded jails, it's just looking for an excuse. The lady at the ACLU said this amendment will mean we'll have to build more jails. If that's the best reason you can come up with to oppose [Prop 103], it's not good enough.

NT: But it costs taxpayers $45 a day per prisoner to hold someone without bail.

Cottrell: But that's what jails are there for. It costs a sum far, far greater than $45 a day to take someone to trial. You have to pay for the courtroom, the lights, the judge and jury.

NT: Do we overvalue the rights of the accused?

Cottrell: The ACLU type folks are taking away the innocent kids' rights by supporting the molester's right to bail, and by letting him back out on the street. A kid shouldn't have to worry about whether he's safe. It's our place, I mean the adults' place, to keep kids safe, and to tell the offender, "You made the wrong decision, and you're going to be kept in a cell."

NT: How has your life changed since Prop 103 passed?

Cottrell: It hasn't really changed significantly, but there's been a huge change in me since I was 12 and I started working on this. I've become more interested in government. I worked on Matt Salmon's campaign, and I've gone to national political events. I want to go into politics, maybe start out as an intern for Senator Martin, something like that.

NT: When you're not drafting ballot measures, what do you do with your time?

Cottrell: School. I'm home-schooled, and it takes up a big part of my life. And I play guitar. But I'd rather be a politician than a musician.

Waitress: Can I get you guys anything else?

NT: Would you switch the television to CNN? There's a press conference about the King brothers. Chris, have you been following this King brothers thing?

Cottrell: Are they the snipers?

NT: No, the two kids in Florida who murdered their father. They killed him with a baseball bat, set fire to their house, and then moved in with a child molester. Look, there they are. (Reading closed caption:) It says, "Brothers plead guilty in father's murder."

Cottrell: Is that one of the kids? He looks like he's 6.

NT: He's 14. His lawyers are trying to make him look younger to gain sympathy from the jury, so they combed his hair like that.

Cottrell: Murdering the father seems like, I don't know, an extreme solution. I don't know about that.

NT: What if your father was accused of being inappropriate with a child? You know he's innocent, but he's denied bail.

Cottrell: That would be bad, but he'd be an exception. It's probably one person out of every one hundred, two hundred people who's innocent of that crime when they're brought in. No law is perfect, and you have to allow for that exception to protect everyone else.

NT: So, your father told me that he told the guy who molested your siblings that he forgave him.

Cottrell: Yeah. I think that's amazing. I don't know if I could have forgiven him.

NT: A lot of good has come from this horrible thing that happened to your family. But what if you could turn back time and prevent it from happening?

Cottrell: I definitely would have wanted to protect them from what happened, but they're much stronger because of it. And if it hadn't happened, there would be a lot more kids molested, because I wouldn't have written this law. I don't know the exact figures, but it's something like an average of 50 victims for every child molester. So I don't know if I'd go back and change it.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela