January 30, 2012

Sex offender's suicide raises questions about treatment

By Craig Crosby
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- In the early morning hours of Jan. 3, 2011, Scott Penney covered his recliner in plastic and carefully leaned plywood against the backrest.

click image to enlarge

Scott Penney

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Linda Penney

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Is workload an issue?

The probation officer who allegedly misread Scott Penney’s conditions of release was likely overseeing dozens of other convicted felons at the time.

And one local prison reform activist said that goes a long way in explaining how Penney fell through the cracks.

“I cannot imagine how you can handle up to 135 cases and do justice to any of them,” said the Rev. Stan Moody, a former chaplain at the Maine State Prison who currently works for corrections reforms. “When a person comes under the care of the corrections system, entire families also come under the care of the corrections system. There is little or no capacity to deal with such tragedies as experienced by the Penneys.”

Probation officers are on the front line when it comes to former prisoners’ attempts to re-enter society, Moody said. Such a position allows officers to reduce recidivism more than any other program, but too often the caseload is too overwhelming to make an independent decision on how to best care for their parolees.

“They need to have the capacity to think creatively and pull together resources when things get dicey with a client,” Moody said. “You can have so many cases that they all begin to be some kind of stereotype.”

There often is not time for detailed debriefings when a supervision is handed from one parole officer to another, Moody said. 

“If you’ve been working with a client for a year or more it seems to me that handing that client off to someone else ought to almost be a last resort,” Moody said.

— Craig Crosby

He walked around his State Street apartment, pulling the window shades closed. He felt his way across the dark room and nestled into the recliner. There, on a coffee table in front of him, Penney left a note to his family that he hoped would explain his decision, even as it begged for their forgiveness.

Penney covered his head with a tarp, grabbed a rusty shotgun, and put the barrel under his chin. He pulled the trigger.

"He didn't want to make a mess for the landlord," his mother, Linda Penney, said. "He planned it right to the letter."

Scott Penney, 45, was a trusted employee, a loyal friend, a beloved son and a proud father.

But he also was a convicted child molester.

It was this sordid past that darkened Penney's life. Everyone knew, or could easily find out, the worst thing Penney had ever done. It became who he was: Scott Penney, sexual offender.

"I will never have my life back," Penney wrote in his final letter. "I can't deal with all this around me and what has happened."

Linda Penney has her reasons for telling her son's story, but gaining sympathy isn't one of them. She doesn't offer excuses for the crimes her son committed and is not mad at the judicial system for punishing her son.

But Linda Penney hopes others will see her son as she did. She hopes others will understand the crushing social stigma he experienced as a convicted sex offender. Linda Penney also hopes that experience is understood by a probation officer assigned to supervise her son whom she believes mishandled the case and contributed to her son's decision to end his life.

"I want people out there aware that not every child molester is a bad person," she said.

Sexual offenses

Scott Penney was convicted in December 2002 of seven charges, including three counts of sexual assault and four of unlawful sexual contact, all involving the same victim and occurring in Winthrop between Nov. 11, 1997, and Dec. 31, 2001.

The victim -- a daughter of Penney's then-girlfriend -- was between the ages of 10 and 14 at the time. Penney's only previous conviction was in March 2002 when he was sentenced to 45 days in jail for assault and violating conditions of release.

Penney was sentenced in October 2003 to 15 years in prison, with all but seven years suspended, and six years of probation. He was also banned from contact with the victim and her family and unsupervised contact with any girl under age 18. Penney was required to register with the state as a sex offender for the rest of his life once he was released from prison.

"I do show remorse for what they lost and what I've lost," he said at his sentencing.

Prison proved difficult for a man who spent his first 35 years as a law-abiding citizen. Scott Penney told his family not to call because it worsened his treatment, his mother said. That is why Linda Penney waited so long to respond after receiving a disturbing phone call one night.

"All I heard was, 'Ma!,'" she said. "Then, no one was there."

A short time later she received a disturbing letter from her son.

"By now you know what I have done," Linda Penney said, recalling the letter. "I thought he had killed himself," she added.

She waited, unwilling to call her son and jeopardize him, until she could stand it no more. When she finally called, she couldn't talk to her son and no one at the prison would explain why.

(Continued on page 2)

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