Handle With Care

Sex offender David Rivera was willing to do almost anything to stay out of jail. Except masturbate.

Through some recent work on the appeal of a peyote-possession case, Casey had become familiar with an assortment of lawsuits being brought against prisons, schools, and other government institutions under the innocuous-sounding Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

The law, which was co-sponsored by the unlikely duo of Sens. Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, and backed by a coalition of 68 religious and civil-rights groups, set up the legal principle that government can restrict religious practice only if it shows a "compelling interest" and applies "the least restrictive means."

It has been used in the courts to win Khalsa Sikh children the right to carry 7-inch ceremonial knives to California schools. The Texas Attorney General's office has litigated 25 cases according to the law in which Wiccans, witches, Native Americans, Muslims, and others have asserted their religious rights against prison rules.

"They have to prove there isn't any other way to treat David without tromping on his free exercise of religion," Casey argues. "That might be kind of hard, considering this jerk-off stuff is not exactly the sine qua non of sex-offender therapy."

Casey had begun preparing legal papers to that end, and even secured a statement from the Rev. Harold Herring, an elder at the International Faith Center, a Haltom City church where Angela has been working as a janitor since her husband went to jail. Herring's letter quotes, among other verses, a few lines from Galatians: "Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness...as I have told you in times past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God."

Despite the promise Casey's work held out for getting Rivera a new trial, he and his wife found a way to cripple even this last-ditch chance.

Earlier this year, the couple fell out with Joel Rios over $1,800 he had loaned Angela for payments on her house. When Rios claimed that she stiffed him on the debt, Rivera called his brother a "devil." Rios says he reluctantly pulled Casey off the appeal.

In late February, with the Riveras broke, the lawyer passed his research on to David in jail, who filed the papers in April on his own. "Nine times out of 10, the Court of Criminal Appeals sends back a postcard saying your writ's denied," Casey says. "If it is not, the courts will appoint Rivera another lawyer."

icking at a salad at a cheap Mexican restaurant a few blocks from her church, Angela lays her petite hand on two thick envelopes piled next to the chips. "It's all in there," she says. "What the state has done to my husband."

She doesn't pause for an instant when asked why she is so certain her husband isn't just another degenerate with a wild excuse. "He's not," she says. "I know him."

Just as certainly, she concludes, "I build my life on my God. I've seen miracles. When people know what's going on in that treatment, he'll be coming home.

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