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State and county officials are challenging the proposed release of a three-time-convicted rapist, Christopher R. Coker, from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).

In a recent court filing, state Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper and Hennepin County's top prosecutor argued that a state appeals panel erred by ignoring "all of the competent evidence" against Coker's release, including the testimony of five medical experts who concluded that he was still too dangerous to be released.

Their petition could delay or even derail the conditional release of Coker, who has been confined at MSOP facilities for the past 15 years for a string of sexual offenses. In 1988, he was convicted of coercing a 16-year-old runaway to prostitute for him after sexually assaulting her four times over a 24-hour period. Between December 1991 and July 1992, he raped three teenage girls in separate incidents, according to court documents. He forced one victim under a bridge, where he threatened to kill her if she screamed.

Now his case highlights a tug of war taking place over new directions for the MSOP. In August, a three-judge judicial panel that reviews offenders' release petitions approved Coker's provisional discharge to a halfway house, citing his progress in treatment and the absence of behavior suggesting he posed a danger to the public. The panel noted that Coker had no incidents of sexual or violent misconduct while in treatment, as well as testing that showed a lack of "inappropriate arousal." The panel also found that Coker had a strong support network — including a close-knit family and a fiancée of 12 years — that would support him upon release. A panel of state appeals court judges upheld this ruling in January.

Even so, the decision was unusual because it contradicted the opinion of five professionals, who opposed Coker's petition while expressing concern about his ability to control his behavior.

State officials argue in a filing with the Minnesota Supreme Court that the judges disregarded the professional experts in favor of testimony from security staff at the MSOP who were unqualified to gauge sex offender risk and treatment progress.

"The panel's disregard for the experts' testimony … is especially concerning given Coker's dangerous criminal history," the filing said.

Speaking by phone Tuesday from the MSOP campus at St. Peter, Minn., Coker said he was "at peace" with the state's decision, knowing that two previous judicial panels had ruled in his favor. "I know I'm safe," he said. "Deviousness and dangerousness are not an issue for me."

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said the county has supported the judicial panels' past rulings, but took exception in this case because of Coker's violent past and "erratic performance" in treatment. "This guy has some scary stuff about him, and it does not appear that he's really worked the program," Freeman said.

The Department of Human Services is opposing Coker's discharge even as it faces federal court pressure to demonstrate that the MSOP is more than indefinite detention by another name. A federal judge in St. Paul last year declared the program unconstitutional and threatened to impose reforms if the MSOP failed to show it can treat and release more of the 726 rapists, pedophiles and other offenders it confines.

The Dayton administration has resisted calls for reforms while quietly moving more offenders toward release. Over the past 15 months, judicial panels have approved six offenders for provisional discharge, compared with only two in the program's prior 20 years. Nearly 60 other offenders have been moved to dormitory-like buildings on the MSOP's St. Peter campus, a final step before public release.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres