Paying off his debt to society, inside prison and out
Richard Jennings stands outside the home he shares with his family in Rochester on June 27, 2013. In 2000, Jennings was charged with three counts of felonious sexual assault for having sex with a 15-year-old and served time for it. In 2009, he was a level three sex offender and helped the ACLU overturn a town ordinance in Dover that restricted how close sex offenders could live to schools or day care centers. His hope was that a new tiered system would be in place to help less violent sex offenders live while continuing to protect children. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Richard Jennings knows people think he’s a monster.
He’s heard it in the violent shaking of his apartment walls. He’s read it in the letters he receives in the mail, and in the emails he sees online. And he’s seen it in the eyes of anyone who knows his story, that he served time for felonious sexual assault.
The label sticks close to him, like a tail zigzagging behind a kite, always there, always following, even after a quick change of direction.
“I just want to live my life,” says Jennings, sitting in the living room in his Rochester apartment on a humid afternoon. “Let me live my life with my wife. Leave me alone.”
His name is forever listed online, on the state’s sex offender registry, reserved for “monsters.” He had sex, at age 32, with a 15-year-old girl three times over two days in 2000.
He says the encounter, consensual, should be looked at differently than the crimes of rapists portrayed in the movies, the hiding-in-the-bushes guy, the pedophile who stalks kids.
That’s for you to decide.
On the state sex offender registry, and in the minds of most people he’s met, there is no distinction.
He received a two- to four-year sentence in 2000.
Later he made headlines when he and the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Dover, which at the time had an ordinance that said convicted sex offenders couldn’t live within 2,500 feet of a school or day-care center.
That was four years ago. In a precedent-setting decision, a judge ruled in Jennings’s favor, saying the ordinance was unconstitutional. In Dover, at least, Jennings could live where he wanted.
But the court victory brought more unwanted attention and thrust Jennings into a brighter spotlight as both a sex offender and a person who helped other sex offenders move about with more freedom.
“Ever since I challenged the ordinance, I’m the monster,” Jennings said. “Because of me, I’m the one who puts children back into harm’s way.”
He’s 46 now and married, living on disability because of a metastasizing melanoma that he says is terminal.
Jennings’s rap sheet is long, dating to his late teens in Exeter, and filled with burglary and criminal trespassing convictions, as well as one for drug possession. He said his father left the family when he was in grade school, and his mother simply couldn’t handle him by herself.
He had a brother, a sister and little money. “I had free rein to do whatever I wanted,” Jennings said. “I was never in the house since I was 14.”
He had sex in 2000 with an underage girl who lived in his Exeter neighborhood. Jennings’s defense? On one hand, he said, the girl looked 18, and on the other, he simply didn’t know the law.
The girl’s mother read about her daughter’s encounter in her diary, and the police soon arrested Jennings, who was out on parole at the time for a burglary conviction.
He served two years in the state prison and said the only person who visited was a friend he’d met through his sister and whom he’d later marry.
“I saw a good man,” Janice Jennings said. “That’s what made me stay with him.”
The couple began living together in 2002, shortly after Jennings’s release from prison. He worked as a subcontractor, installing floors, while his name was added to a list that many people check, just in case there’s something about a neighbor they feel they should know.
In Portsmouth, the Jenningses were asked to move. “The landlord didn’t want to renew our lease because he knew I was a sex offender,” Jennings said.
So they moved to Dover, down the street from a day-care center, in violation of the local law. It didn’t take long for word to spread.
And it didn’t take long for the walls of his apartment to shake with anger, caused by someone, Jennings figures, who rushed the wall like a running back breaking through the line. It was that loud, that violent.
“The whole apartment would vibrate,” Jennings said.
It’s also when online comments attacked Janice for marrying a sex offender, calling her names that can’t be printed here. It’s when people knocked on the door, curious if Janice’s husband was there, curious what the monster looked like.
It’s when a nasty letter arrived in the mail, and it’s when the family cat mysteriously disappeared.
“Nowhere to be found,” Janice said. “I made up posters and put them up through the town and they all got taken down. I put them up again and they got taken down again.”
Once the complaints from neighbors mounted, Jennings was arrested for living where he wasn’t permitted, and Janice was arrested for allowing her husband to live there.
The couple and Janice’s teenage daughter moved to Rochester, but not before Jennings received a six-month sentence and served four months. His lawyer contacted ACLU attorney Barbara Keshen, who sued the city of Dover.
Jennings saw it as a chance to differentiate himself from other sex offenders. He thinks the justice system should include a panel of professionals who can diagnose a person’s mental state and determine how dangerous that person remains after prison. Then, Jennings said, continue monitoring the hard-core offenders, those convicted of violent rapes, by using a registry and restricting where they can live.
Meanwhile, Keshen saw a winnable case as it related to the Constitution. She says the data show that boxing in someone like Jennings – or any other sex offender, for that matter – would solve nothing.
“It was important to bring that forward,” Keshen said. “We think public policy should be based on reason and empirical data, and designed to accomplish what it sets out to accomplish. These arbitrary restrictions saying where sex offenders can live don’t do anything to protect children, and that’s been well-documented for the last 15 years.”
The judge agreed, but the victory did little to reshape Jennings’s – or Janice’s – public images. The letters kept coming, many sparked by the publicity caused by the Dover ruling.
“The public has this impression that my wife is a monster for letting me into her household,” Jennings said. “It’s not fair to have my wife labeled a monster for being with me.”
Jennings continued: “What I did was wrong. It was against the law, and it was morally and ethically wrong.”
But he believes his time to live in peace is overdue. He served two years, yet Jennings says he feels like a caged animal.
Or a monster, if you will.
“I don’t like to go out of the house very much,” Jennings said. “I don’t like to walk down the street because I’m afraid people will see me. I consider this to be my own little prison.”