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Patrick Springer, Published June 22 2013

In laws and lives, Jeanna North’s murder has lasting legacy

FARGO – Jeanna North’s life ended prematurely when she was murdered at the age of 11. But her death spurred lasting changes, including new laws to enhance public safety.

“There’s so many things that changed because of one little girl. She didn’t die in vain, I don’t believe. She changed the world,” said her sister Jennifer North.

Jeanna North was sexually abused and killed in 1993 by a man who lived across the street from her family’s northside home in Fargo.

The neighborhood had no idea that a convicted child molester, Kyle Bell, was living in their midst.

As a result, North Dakota and Minnesota tightened the requirements for their sex offender registries.

The North Dakota Legislature passed a law in 1995 requiring pedophiles and those convicted of crimes against children to register with law enforcement, a searchable tracking system now online, with penalties for offenders who fail to comply. The requirement strengthened a registration law passed in 1991, which relied on sex offenders to register themselves.

Her case also led to provisions, introduced in 2004 by former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to tighten the federal sex offender registry.

Bell’s murder conviction in 1999 is believed to be the first in North Dakota lacking the victim’s body, according to prosecutors and defense lawyers.

Following Bell’s escape three weeks after his sentencing, and recapture 88 days later, the North Dakota Supreme Court rejected his appeal, adopting the fugitive dismissal rule. The common law doctrine holds that an escaped prisoner forfeits his right to appeal when he flees instead of staying to challenge his conviction on appeal.

“The fugitive dismissal order is something that didn’t exist in North Dakota until this case,” said Birch Burdick, Cass County state’s attorney.

“If you absent yourself from the system you shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from the system,” he added, explaining the legal rationale.

Also following Bell’s escape, Congress tightened standards and requirements of private prisoner transport firms. TransCor of America was moving Bell to a maximum security prison in Oregon when he escaped in 1999.

The new requirements, introduced by Dorgan, included background checks for transport company guards; restrictions on the number of hours private transport employees can work; minimum standards on prisoner restraints, including double-locked handcuffs and a requirement that law enforcement officials must be immediately notified when a violent prisoner escapes.

For a time, the Fargo Police Department named its missing child alert system Jeanna Alert, in Jeanna North’s memory. But the name was switched in 2003 to Amber Alert to avoid confusion with the name adopted statewide and nationwide, named after a girl from Texas who was abducted and murdered.

The memory of Jeanna’s murder by a serial sex offender remains a painful memory in her neighborhood.

Three years ago, neighbors protested a proposed group home that would have housed sex offenders just blocks away from where the North family lived.

“People live in fear in this neighborhood of who is walking down the street,” Jaime Kreider, who was a friend of the North family, told city planning officials at the time.

The project was rejected.

One of the most lasting legacies of Jeanna’s disappearance and murder is the grim reminder it left with parents to never let their guard down, said Jennifer North, herself a mother.

“It happens every day,” she added, referring to child abuse and abduction. “Parents need to be aware of where their kids are, who they’re with and who their neighbors are.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522