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Criminal Practice – Pedophilia diagnosis rejected; commitment terminated

The district court, presented with two plausible but competing theories, did not err in finding that a developmentally disabled individual civilly committed as a sexually violent predator did not meet the criteria for continued commitment and must be released.


Appellant Walter Wooden was born in 1956 and has a limited intellectual capacity. When he was 16, he was twice adjudicated delinquent for committing sodomy on a minor. The next year, he was adjudicated delinquent after sexually molesting a minor. In 1974, he was charged as an adult and pled guilty to taking indecent liberties with a four-year-old. In 1984, he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for separate incidents involving an eight- and twelve-year-old boy.

Wooden was paroled in 2002 and began sex-offender treatment. During this time, he admitted to having sexual thoughts about children, being sexually aroused in the presence of children, engaging in sexual activity with a child, and attempting to engage in sexual activity with a different child. His parole was revoked, and he served the remainder of his revocation sentence at a North Carolina federal correctional institute.

Shortly before Wooden’s scheduled release, he was civilly committed as a sexually violent predator under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. At the commitment hearing, the district court heard evidence from Drs. Hy Malinek and Heather Ross that Wooden suffered from pedophilia.

In 2014, Wooden was evaluated by Drs. Joseph Plaud and Frederick Winsmann. After interviewing Wooden and his family members and conducting a battery of tests, Winsmann concluded that Wooden suffers from Intellectual Development Disorder, a condition previously referred to by mental-health professionals as mental retardation.

Wooden subsequently moved to be discharged. Winsmann testified that Wooden’s IQ was 75, but he presents and communicates at an even lower level, with cognitive functioning comparable to that of a third-to-fifth grader. Winsmann testified that he saw no evidence of pedophilia and that Wooden’s past offenses were borne out of his intellectual deficit rather than a deviant preferential urge or arousal to children.

The government opposed discharge, again offering the expert opinions of Malinek and Ross. Both testified that Wooden continued to qualify for commitment. Malinek acknowledged Wooden’s adaptive and intellectual deficits, buts questioned the conclusion that IDD “is now the explanation for it all.” Malinek noted that IDD research did not suggest proneness to aggressive, persistent interest in prepubescent children of the type Wooden had historically evinced.

Wooden also testified, expressing regret for his actions and acknowledging that he took advantage of his victims. He also stated that he is attracted to women and no longer attracted to young boys.

The district court ruled in Wooden’s favor, finding that he no longer satisfied the statutory requirements for commitment. This appeal followed.

Offender’s expert

The government’s overarching claim is that Dr. Winsmann’s testimony was not worthy of credence.

Winsmann is a licensed psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School. He provides treatment to between 150 and 200 sex offenders and patients with IDD, some of whom also exhibit sexually inappropriate behavior. Winsmann has also performed approximately 170 forensic evaluations in sexually-violent predator cases. He found the defendants to meet the commitment criteria in 45 percent of cases. The government does not dispute that he is a leading expert on volitional control in sex offenders.

Considering the results of intelligence tests and hours of interviews with Wooden, Winsmann ultimately concluded that Wooden suffered from Intellectual Development Disorder, and that this – not pedophilia – was the driving force behind Wooden’s crimes. Winsmann found no evidence that Wooden was currently aroused by children and testified that Wooden instead had a “global sexual interest.” Winsmann based that determination on interviews where Wooden reported three romantic relationships with adult women, and Wooden’s sisters’ confirmation that he had peer-aged girlfriends when he was not incarcerated.

Thus, Winsmann concluded that a developmental disorder provided a “better explanation” for Wooden’s offenses. Winsmann testified that people with IDD are capable of personal and intellectual growth, though it’s slow. Winsmann believed that Wooden showed evidence of being able to control whether thought leads to action. Winsmann’s opinion is plausible, coherent, and internally consistent.

Moreover, Winsmann’s belief that Wooden had slowly developed the ability to consider the consequences of his actions and modulate his behavior finds support in evidence before the district court. Wooden was convicted of multiple sexual crimes against children over a period lasting through his 20s. After imprisonment, he was paroled at age 46. While participating in sex-offender treatment, he disclosed having sexual contact with a boy in the past year, as well as other incidents where he considered engaging in such contact but did not go through with it. While Wooden’s conduct in 2002-2005 was still problematic, it nonetheless represents a dramatic improvement over his conduct 30 years earlier. This trajectory is consistent with Winsmann’s testimony that people with IDD can learn to modulate their behavior.

Wooden’s personal growth can also be seen in the change in Wooden’s testimony and demeanor between the proceedings in this case. In 2011, he was recalcitrant and insisted that his young victims initiated sex. But in 2016, Wooden was a cooperative witness, and he no longer blamed his victims, instead acknowledging that he shouldn’t have taken advantage of them. The district court, which had been involved with Wooden’s case from the beginning, found Wooden’s statements of regret to be credible.

Wooden’s behavior in prison further supports his personal growth and maturation. Early in his incarceration, Wooden had many angry outbursts, including threatening his guards. But he has not had an angry outburst in at least a decade, and the number of disciplinary citations has dropped dramatically.

Winsmann’s testimony thus presented the district court with an overarching, unifying theory of the case: the previous failure to recognize the effect of Wooden’s developmental disorder on his actions caused other medical professionals to misdiagnose him with pedophilia.

Government’s expert

The district court did not err in accepting Winsmann’s opinion that Wooden suffered from IDD over Malinek’s opinion to the contrary. Even if the district court’s reference to a 10-to-15-year developmental gap did not precisely capture the nuances of the issue, the error does not undermine the district court’s analysis or ultimate conclusion.

The district court did not ignore Malinek’s opinion, as the government contends, but instead fairly summarized his testimony that IDD could not explain Wooden’s violent crimes against prepubescent children. The district court nonetheless found Winsmann’s testimony to be more persuasive, noting that portions of Malinek’s testimony were directly contradicted by the court’s own observations of and experiences with Wooden over the years and that Malinek focused too heavily on historical criminal behavior rather than Wooden’s present condition. Moreover, Winsmann’s evaluation was based on much more time with Wooden while Malinek had never spoken to Wooden. Winsmann’s testimony was not any less coherent, plausible, and internally consistent when placed beside Malinek’s testimony.

Moreover, Malinek’s testimony was not contrary to the district court’s finding. The district court did not conclude that Wooden’s attraction to adult women precluded a pedophilia diagnosis; rather, it concluded that Wooden had a “global sexual interest” which could manifest itself toward children, with whom he bonded easily, because of his impaired cognitive functioning and adaptive difficulties.

The district court also considered and addressed Malinek’s testimony regarding Wooden’s volitional control, specifically that Wooden’s calculating and intentional conduct toward his victims was inconsistent with developmental disorder. While the district court did not specifically explain why it did not find that specific portion of Malinek’s testimony persuasive, it was not required to explain in detail why it rejected each and every individual piece of evidence.

Here, the district court explicitly acknowledged Malinek’s views, but the court was nonetheless persuaded by Winsmann’s testimony. Under this court’s deferential standard of review, the district court’s treatment and consideration of Malinek’s testimony was sufficient.

Credibility determinations

Contrary to the government’s contention, the district court did not credit Wooden’s testimony that he no longer experiences attraction to children. However, the district court distinguished between desires and acts, thus making no specific finding about when Wooden stopped experiencing pedophilic urges.

Even if Wooden was experiencing such urges in 2011, there is no evidence that he was outwardly exhibiting those urges at that time or still experiencing them in 2016. The government nonetheless suggests that the absence of evidence of pedophilic urges does not mean that Wooden is not currently experiencing those urges. But this argument would effectively mean that an offender diagnosed with pedophilia could never be released, as the government could always prove future impulse-control problems by pointing to past failures to exercise control. The structure of the Act, which requires discharge if the inmate is no longer sexually dangerous, clearly shows that Congress believed that sexually dangerous predators could change and grow out of the sexually-dangerous classification. The government’s argument forecloses that possibility, and we therefore reject it.

While Malinek and Ross testified that Wooden still suffered from pedophilic disorder, they offered no testimony about whether Wooden was suffering from pedophilic urges at the time of the hearing. Ross based her continued diagnosis on the fact that she believed Wooden suffered from pedophilic disorder at the commitment hearing. Malinek likewise provided no testimony that Wooden was currently experiencing urges about children. Nor could he have, given that he has never interviewed Wooden and conducted his evaluation by performing actuarial assessments and reviewing documents such as police reports, mental-health treatment records, and prison records, none of which provided any information about whether Wooden was experiencing pedophilic urges at the time of the hearing.

The only actual evidence of whether Wooden was then experiencing intense pedophilic urges is found in Wooden’s testimony that he was not, confirmed by Winsmann and Plaud, both of whom had interviewed Wooden multiple times and would have used their training to evaluate the credibility of his statements.

The government thus asks us to reject as clearly erroneous a conclusion based on a credibility finding about the only affirmative evidence on that issue. The district court, as fact-finder, specifically found Wooden’s denial of current pedophilic urges to be credible, and the government has pointed to nothing that would permit us to reject that conclusion. Under clear-error review, this court cannot reverse a district court’s plausible account of the evidence in light of the record viewed in its entirety, even if the appellate panel would have weighed the evidence differently.

Accordingly, this court cannot say that the district court’s view of the evidence regarding the IDD diagnosis is implausible.

Conditional release

The determination that the district court did not clearly err when finding that Wooden did not suffer from pedophilic disorder is dispositive of this appeal. The Act authorizes the civil commitment of “sexually dangerous” offenders. Because there is no clear error in the district court’s determination, commitment is not authorized.

The government asserts that, at the very least, the district court should have imposed conditions on Wooden’s release, but this court cannot agree. The Act requires the immediate discharge of detainees who will not be sexually dangerous to others if released unconditionally and authorizes conditional discharges only for those detainees who require medical care or treatment to keep them from being sexually dangerous.

In this case, the district court concluded that Wooden does not suffer from a serious mental illness, disease, or abnormality, and that Wooden therefore is not sexually dangerous. Accordingly, the Act does not permit the imposition of conditions on Wooden’s release.


The question of whether a person is sexually dangerous is by no means an easy one, and the potential consequences of an incorrect decision are steep – a loss of liberty if an inmate is wrongly found to be sexually dangerous or unspeakable harm to a child if an inmate is wrongly released. Under our judicial system, however, it is the district court, not this court, that is charged with sorting out the factual issues and answering the ultimate question.

In this case, the district court was presented with two plausible theories of the case, both of which were supported by facially credible expert evidence. Regardless of whether we would have reached the same conclusion, the district court’s findings represent a permissible and reasonable interpretation of the evidence presented. Under these circumstances, we are constrained to affirm the district court’s order requiring Wooden’s release.

United States v. Wooden (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-064-18, 34 pp.) (Traxler, J.) No. 16-7607; Apr. 10, 2018; EDNC at Raleigh (Boyle, J.) Benjamin M. Shultz for Appellant; Debra Carroll Graves for Appellee. 4th Cir.

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