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Panel advances 'Leah's Law'

MADISON -- A law that would create a statewide violent offender database cleared its first hurdle Wednesday when the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice voted unanimously to move "Leah's Law" to the full Assembly and Senate for consideration.

MADISON -- A law that would create a statewide violent offender database cleared its first hurdle Wednesday when the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice voted unanimously to move "Leah's Law" to the full Assembly and Senate for consideration.

People who would be covered under the bill include first and second-degree murderers, terrorists, violent abusers including those who batter, kidnap and commit arson -- plus violent individuals who've committed very serious crimes, said Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, an author of the bill. Wisconsin would join Florida, Montana, Kansas, Oklahoma and Ohio in requiring repeat violent offenders to register for a searchable database that reveals their presence in the community, he said.

"People have a right to know about them, and they also have a right to know where they live," Suder said. "I think it's necessary. We don't want everyone to be able to search for everything. We think that goes too far. But for those individuals considered violent offenders, we think it's necessary (that) people be allowed to know who's living next to them."

It's information friends and family of Leah Gustafson -- the woman for whom the bill is named -- believe could have saved her life. The 29-year-old Superior woman was murdered in her home Jan. 7, 2006, by Jason Borelli, a neighbor with a long history of violent offenses (see adjacent story).

Two years ago, her friends and family started gathering signatures with the hope of creating a law that would allow anyone search for violent offenders in their neighborhood.

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"This law helps other people be protected," said Leah's mother, Sharon Gustafson. "That was very much a part of her heart."

Alissa Wild, a friend of Leah's, spoke on behalf of her 14-year-old daughter, Janiece.

"She wants you to know that she lost her 'big sister,' that confidant she could talk to," Wild said. "She also wants you to know that when she goes to college, she wants to feel safe. When she moves out on her own, she'll move somewhere safe."

Wild said while the law is too late to save Leah, it's not too late to protect others from habitual violent offenders like Jason Borelli.

Borelli is serving a life sentence without possibility for parole in connection with the murder.

Reps. Frederick Kessler and Tamara Grigsby, both Milwaukee Democrats, said they had concerns about a "catch-all" clause in the legislation presented to the committee, but were willing to work with authors of the bill.

Suder said the clause was included to give judges discretion; however, he was willing to modify the language to assure that the bill is acceptable.

As a former sheriff of Polk County, Rep. Ann Hraychuck, D-Balsam Lake, a co-sponsor of the bill and member of the criminal justice committee, said she appreciated the group's effort to turn their tragedy into something that benefits the public.

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"I really appreciate that you could turn something so tragic into something positive," said Rep. Sheryl Albers, R-Reedsburg.

It was a sentiment shared by Grigsby and committee chairman, Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc.

"They're doing this because they passionately believe this is the right thing to do," Kleefisch said. He said he was pleased the public hearing could be scheduled during Superior Days.

"It will protect my daughter," Wild said. "That's my future there. That's my whole life right there."

Contact Shelley Nelson at (715) 395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com .

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