Earnest Leap has waited 26 years for this day, the day someone in power believed his story: He never sexually abused his son, Brodie.
Instead what really occurred, the Clay County father has always said, is that in 1989 he was falsely accused of child sexual abuse by his ex-wife after a rancorous divorce.
Primary care for the child, which the court had given Leap, was taken away.
As recently as this weekend, Brodie Leap — who is now 32 and has for years been fighting for his father’s exoneration — recorded on video, “It never happened. I’ve been trying to tell people that ever since I was a kid.”
Instead, he said, his mother badgered him into telling a lie that Brodie Leap has regretted his entire life.
As recounted in October in The Star, Brodie Leap’s lie led to charges. It led to his father’s arrest. It led Earnest Leap to follow his public defender’s flawed advice to cease pleading not guilty and instead plead no contest to the charge under the guarantee that in three years all record of it would just disappear.
So it did, until 1994, when federal law created public sex offender registries in every state. Leap has been haunted by the fact that he will be on the registry for the rest of his life.
“I have nothing to be ashamed of,” Leap, now 57, said previously and maintains.
At least one Missouri legislator believes him. Shortly after The Star’s story ran, Rep. Jim Neely, a Republican from Cameron and vice chairman of the House Children and Families Committee, took up Leap’s cause.
He has scheduled a news conference Tuesday at the state Capitol in Jefferson City, where he plans to stand with Earnest and Brodie Leap and other family members and colleagues to call on Gov. Jay Nixon to pardon Earnest Leap and remove his name from the list of Missouri’s sex offenders.
“I think we need to correct this wrong. It’s as simple as that,” Neely said in a telephone interview Monday. “It would be wonderful if the governor would just go ahead and pardon this man.”
Earnest Leap’s former wife, meanwhile, has maintained that she did not coerce her son 26 years ago to reveal an accusation of abuse.
Neely said he plans to deliver a letter of support to the governor signed by about one-third of Missouri House representatives. “Both sides of the aisle,” he said.
The Missouri Constitution gives the governor the authority to grant reprieves and pardons and to commute sentences for convictions of all offenses other than treason and impeachment.
The governor’s office declined Monday to comment on the request for Leap but noted that “Gov. Nixon has issued 14 pardons to nonviolent offenders and has granted three commutations of sentences.”
The pardons were primarily for crimes such as drug possession or burglary.
A year ago in May, the governor commuted the sentence of Jeffrey Mizanskey, a then-62-year-old former Sedalia resident who in 1996 had been given a sentence of life without the possibility of parole after a third marijuana arrest. The two other commutations reduced death sentences to life in prison without parole.
Earnest Leap understands that a request for pardon does not guarantee that the governor will review his case. On Monday, he nonetheless cried thinking of the effort that his son, other family members and Neely have shown on his behalf.
“He has really gone to town,” Earnest Leap said. “He is kind of going to confront the governor.”
About 850,000 people are on the nation’s sex offender registries. Polls routinely show strong public support for the registries as a way to keep track of individuals convicted of sex crimes. But a chorus of criticism also has been growing.
The critics include not only civil rights advocates — who see the registries as modern-day scarlet letters, brands that publicly identify individuals long after their sentences have been served — but also criminologists and law enforcement agencies complaining about a hodgepodge of state rules on where offenders can live, work or walk.
“It has been 25 years since the false accusation and lifetime conviction of Mr. Leap,” Neely wrote in his appeal to the governor. “This sentencing has sealed his fate in not allowing him to participate in community service or simply going to a park with his son from his remarriage. Daily, his wife and sons fight to bring justice to Mr. Leap, yet it seems unlikely that the public will view him any other way unless he is pardoned.”
Brodie Leap is seeking other recourse through the courts should the governor not consider the request for pardon. Lawyers with the Midwest Innocence Project have agreed to review Earnest Leap’s case to seek possible exoneration.
“This is an indictment of our legal system when it comes to child custody,” Neely said Monday. “I think a lot of people recognize this. I think this happens more often than we think.”
Earnest Leap said he was mostly grateful for the relief from guilt that a pardon would bring his son. Brodie Leap, in an email last week to Neely, said as much.
“Words can’t describe how grateful I am,” the son wrote. “It’s incredibly heartening to see the empathy my father is finally receiving. … I have no memories of a time where my father wasn’t burdened by the seemingly immutable specter of a lie. … My father is honestly the best person I have ever known.”