(AP) MINNEAPOLIS - As prosecutors in Minnesota began preparing to file charges against a man accused of molesting two girls and raping a third in the 1990s, the suspect fled the United States, eventually winding up in London, where authorities caught up to him two years ago.
Minnesota prosecutors' efforts to bring Shawn Sullivan back to face trial for his alleged crimes were thwarted Thursday when Britain's High Court dropped extradition proceedings, saying the U.S. hadn't guaranteed Sullivan would be kept out of a civil commitment program seen by some as draconian.
Judges Alan Moses and David Eady said in a ruling finalized Thursday that if Sullivan, 43, were returned to the U.S., he could face a real risk of being placed in the state's civil commitment program and would suffer "a flagrant denial of his rights."
One of Sullivan's accusers called the decision "a slap in the face."
"That whole argument is just irrational," said Jessica Schaefer, 29. Sullivan allegedly molested her and her cousin when they were both 11. "It's just another loophole in the justice system that caters to the criminals. All they have to do is find a loophole or a technicality and they walk. ... "I feel like I'm just pleading for justice, and I'm not getting anywhere."
The Associated Press does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault without their consent. The Minnesota women Sullivan is accused of attacking as children agreed to let the AP use their names.
Two Minnesota prosecutors in the counties where Sullivan faces charges defended their decision not to guarantee Sullivan would be kept out of the program, saying it was "not in the interests of public safety."
"I think it's way beyond reasonableness for them to interfere in how we conduct business," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.
Sullivan escaped to Ireland as prosecutors prepared to file charges, and while staying there was convicted of sexually assaulting two 12-year-old girls. Sullivan, a dual U.S.-Irish citizen, moved to London using an Irish passport that spelled his last name in Gaelic as "O'Suilleabhain."
The British judges made clear in an earlier decision that they would have supported Sullivan's extradition had it not been for the sex treatment program, which they described as among the toughest in the U.S.
The program, which began in its current form in the mid-1990s, allows courts to commit a person for sex offender treatment if a judge decides the person is sexually psychopathic or sexually dangerous. As of April 1, 641 people were in Minnesota's program.
It faces constitutional challenges by some who say it holds people indefinitely after their prison sentences. One 64-year-old man received a provisional discharge earlier this year when he was allowed to move into a Minneapolis-area halfway house. Only one other person was ever released from the program, and was soon taken back into custody on a violation.
The justices in London outlined a litany of concerns in their June 20 decision, noting offenders don't have to be mentally ill to be committed; their offenses don't have to be recent; and in some cases, they don't even have to have been convicted of a crime.
Officials with the Minnesota Department of Human Services said they don't know of any instances where someone without a criminal conviction has been placed in the program, though they acknowledged it's theoretically possible.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, who charged Sullivan with molesting the 11-year-old girls, said authorities hadn't decided whether to pursue civil commitment. However, he said making such a guarantee "could open the floodgates."
"It's a very slippery slope to go down once you start making agreements," Backstrom said.
Peter Wold, Sullivan's criminal defense attorney in Minnesota, said the British judges balked at the prospect of indefinite detention. "That offended them, and it should offend a lot of people, to have the prospect of people being committed with no end in sight," he said.
Human rights concerns periodically complicate efforts by U.S. prosecutors to extradite suspects. For example, European Union countries typically won't extradite suspects who could face capital punishment to the U.S. unless American prosecutors give assurances they won't seek the death penalty.
Still, Bruce Zagaris, a Washington attorney specializing in international criminal law, said this was one of the first cases he had seen in which the U.K. has said no to extradition.
"I think foreign courts no longer give us the benefit of the doubt," Zagaris said.
Sullivan still faces a civil case in Minnesota, and Michael Hall III, the attorney representing the three alleged victims, said he expects that to go forward. He said significant punitive damages are possible.
Sullivan's attorney in the civil case was out of the office Thursday and did not return a message.
Hannah Treziok, who was 14 when she says Sullivan raped her, said she was disappointed with the British court's ruling but that she had prepared herself for this possibility.
"The reality is, we, the victims, have for 18 years been fighting the good fight, and there is no shame in that," she said. "Even though it is not the exact outcome that we desired ... we brought him out of the shadows and exposed him for who and what he really is."