Somer's mom watches lawmakers take aim at predators

By Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - With the mother of a murdered child looking on, the Florida Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed four bills intended to make the state as inhospitable as possible to sexually violent predators.

Diena Thompson, whose 7-year-old daughter Somer disappeared in Clay County in 2009 while walking home from school, watched in tears from the gallery. After an extensive search, the child's body was found in a South Georgia landfill, and last year a 26-year man was sentenced to life in prison for her death.

"This is for Somer," said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and the sponsor of one of the bills. He noted that he was wearing a purple tie because that had been Somer's favorite color.

The legislative package has been at the top of Senate President Don Gaetz's agenda since August, when the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that 594 sexual offenders had gone free since 1999 --- only to commit 463 child molestations, 121 rapes and 14 murders.

"We will protect our children and we will scorch the earth against sexually violent predators," Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in an address Tuesday opening the annual legislative session. "We cannot waste one more day. We cannot lose one more child."

The Senate approved the following measures:

--- SB 522 by Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, would require sheriffs to refer for civil-commitment proceedings inmates who are serving sentences in county detention facilities if the inmates are registered sex offenders or sexual predators and have previously committed sexually violent offenses.

--- SB 524 by Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, would require a person to be subject to civil confinement as a sexually violent predator after a finding by two or more members of a multidisciplinary team.

--- SB 526 by Bradley would increase the length of sentences for certain adult-on-minor sexual offenses and prohibit incentive gain-time for certain sexual offenses.

--- SB 528 by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, would require registered offenders to report vehicle information, Internet identifiers, palm prints, passports, professional licenses, immigration status, volunteer work at higher education institutions and other information.

Sobel cited the case of Cherish Perrywinkle, an 8-year-old Jacksonville girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered last year. A registered sex offender, Donald Smith, will be tried in May for those crimes. Smith, 57, had made repeated failed attempts to kidnap young girls --- even posing as a Department of Children and Families worker at one point, authorities say. Under the Senate proposals, he would not have been released before the Perrywinkle abduction given his previous crimes.

After the Senate adjourned, reporters asked Diena Thompson (pictured, center, applauding after passage) if the bills could have changed what happened to her daughter.

"I don't know that the law would have changed it for Somer," she said. "But what I do know is that it would change it for Cherish and many other children to come, so that's really all that matters."

The House versions of the Senate bills have passed two committees, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said they'll be ready within two weeks.

Copyright 2014 by The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.