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VICTIM ADVOCATES SAY BE WARY OF INMATE SITES

In some respects, the online message reads like a typical personal ad. "My name is Norman," it begins. "I'm 38 years old. I'm intelligent with a sense of humor. If a photo becomes an issue, I'll get one. I'm 5-foot-10, blue eyes, and described as good looking."

But there are other ways to describe Norman Laurence. A convicted killer, Laurence last year was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Police said he and a friend stomped Laurence's girlfriend to death, returning later to burn and bury her body.

During his trial, Laurence became the first murder defendant in recent Rhode Island history to act as his own lawyer. Now, Laurence is the only Rhode Island inmate with a message posted on a Web site called Cyberspace Inmates, which includes photos and letters from 1,600 prisoners across the country.

The inmates don't have direct access to the Internet. Rather, they write letters to a Missouri minister, who posts the messages online and funnels responses back to the inmates. She charges inmates $10 per month to cover expenses.

The minister sees the Web site as a way to help prisoners by providing them with pen pals, spiritual support and legal assistance.

"I feel I am doing some good," said the Rev. Rene Mulkey, a nondenominational minister who lives on a 60-acre farm in Cameron, Mo. "Just because they are in prison doesn't mean they are nothing."

But crime-victim advocates fear the Web site will allow inmates to reach beyond prison bars to contact children, to sucker people into giving them money or to line up future victims.

"It's the next wave of offender manipulation," said Deborah DeBare, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "I'd be really wary and skeptical. Don't fall for the sugary lines."

In his cyberspace message, Laurence says he is interested "in corresponding with women of all ages."

But he clearly has other aims. "I'm looking to correspond with legal minds and an author," he writes. "I have a best seller about a very bizarre story."

In his message, Laurence states that he was "forced" to represent himself during his trial. Court transcripts show Laurence rejected the services of at least four lawyers and chose to represent himself. Laurence argued he had no choice.

Mulkey said she never asks inmates about their crimes. "They've already been judged," she said.

But similar Web sites urge pen pals to investigate the criminal histories of inmates. "There are many ways to find out all the information about any prisoner in America," reads a disclaimer on PrisonPenPals. "We suggest contacting the prison they are located in."

Mulkey said she does her best to "police" her Web site. If a death row inmate is seeking money for a lawyer, she won't object. But if an inmate is asking for $5 every time he writes a letter, he'll get tossed off the site. "I've made the site as safe as possible," she said.

DeBare said she is concerned that children could be drawn into corresponding with criminals. Mulkey said she does not allow anyone under 18 to write to inmates, but she acknowledged she has no way of knowing the age of pen pals unless they mention it.

Critics also warn against trying to find "Prince Charming" at the adult correctional institutions. "You're more likely to find the frog, or maybe the dragon," said Richard Ferruccio, president of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers.

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