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Missouri jury finds 86-year-old former minister to be a sexually violent predator

Missouri jury finds 86-year-old former minister to be a sexually violent predator

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ST. LOUIS — The Missouri attorney general’s office convinced a Jasper County jury that an 86-year-old former minister is still at risk of sodomizing teenage boys, even after he completed a 15-year prison sentence for doing so.

The unanimous verdict determined that Donald D. Peckham is a sexually violent predator who should be kept under the state’s care, control and treatment until he gets better. That means Peckham, of Sarcoxie, in southwest Missouri, was indefinitely committed to Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services, or SORTS, a controversial program run by the Missouri Department of Mental Health that few people get through.

“This is a life sentence for him,” said his attorney, Amy Clay, a public defender.

Some constitutional purists have criticized SORTS since it began in 1999. They view the $36.5 million program as an additional prison sentence disguised as treatment. But public safety officials and the Legislature have stood by it as a necessary service for a small subset of the worst sex offenders in the state. SORTS also passed scrutiny by a federal judge who once said the program had systemic failures.

Meanwhile, the sexually violent predator population has grown to 257 patients treated at secure facilities in Fulton and Farmington. Four more patients live in the community under strict terms of conditional release.

In Peckham’s case, Jasper County officials blacked out court records to protect the jury pool. Though the verdict was reached Aug. 28, before Circuit Court Judge David Mouton, case records weren’t publicized until Tuesday because of an oversight, the circuit clerk told the Post-Dispatch.

After prison, Peckham was held in limbo at the Vernon County Jail for three years, pending the outcome of civil commitment legal proceedings. Gary Almquist, chaplain at the jail, said he got to know Peckman well. He said Peckman has the support of grown children, grandchildren and a wife of more than 60 years.

“He has a very deep heart for God,” Almquist said. “We know he did some terrible things, but he did his time for his crimes.”

Experts disagreed if Peckham fit the criteria of being a sexually violent predator. But Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce ultimately convinced the jury that Peckham “suffers a mental abnormality” and that he’s “more likely than not” to reoffend if set free.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said evidence presented at trial established that Peckham sexually abused at least 14 boys between 12 and 16 years old over the course of 30 years and continued to victimize young boys until he was 67 years old.

Peckham is a college graduate who completed three years of seminary training, according to court records. He was a United Methodist minister in Kansas from 1958 to 1973, church officials confirmed Tuesday. He also worked as a pastor in Missouri, including Jubilee Christian Fellowship Church in Sarcoxie, a congregation that is no longer listed in public records.

Facing allegations that Peckham harmed two teenage boys in the 1990s, Peckham was arrested in 2004 and pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree sodomy and one count of second-degree statutory sodomy. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Other allegations of abuse surfaced from four churches in Kansas but fell outside the state’s statute of limitations, according to the Joplin Globe newspaper.

That Peckham was a former minister seemed to weigh heavily on the southwest Missouri jury in his recent civil commitment case, said Clay, his attorney, even though he completed the state’s sex offender program in prison.

“How is an 86-year-old man a threat?” she said. “It’s such a perversion of the legislative intent (of the law).”

But there are other sexually violent predators in their 80s. And Clay said one of her next clients facing indefinite treatment is 92 and has dementia.

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