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Orange County | Dana Parsons

This Just In, Judge: There's No Cultural Defense for Child Abuse

April 28, 2002|Dana Parsons

I don't want robots for judges. Lots of judges master the lawbooks but never slip out of their robes to see what life is like outside the courtroom. Give me a judge, any day, who's been around the block a few times and isn't afraid to make unpopular decisions.

It sounds as if Judge James O. Perez is cut from that mold. But none of those traits matter much if, when it comes to crunch time, you make a horrendously bad call.

And last week, Perez made one of the worst calls to come out of Orange County Superior Court in a long, long time. You'd think the case had been taken over by one of those "mock courtrooms" where high school sophomores play judge--except that no 15-year-old would ever do what Perez did.

Perez fined a father $100 for holding his 5-year-old son's hand over an open flame on a gas stove. The boy was never hospitalized, but prosecutors said Wellington Soto bandaged his son's hand and that several layers of skin were burned. The judge concluded the burns weren't that serious.

Perez suggested that his sentence reflected his empathy for the "crosscurrent of customs and habits" that had brought Soto, a Guatemalan immigrant, to court. Soto had used the flame to discipline his son for swiping a pack of gum from an Anaheim store. Perez said he, too, had been similarly disciplined as a child. The judge acknowledged that the hand-burning was too severe but said it might serve as a powerful deterrent for the young boy.

The best we can say about Perez, a retired judge who works part time, is that he thought too much. When he suggests that Latin culture embraces what Soto did as parental discipline, you have to wonder what century he's talking about. The 12th? The 13th?

Nor is that even the point. It wouldn't matter if Guatemalan law today required parents to hold their children's hands over open flames. Perez is presiding in an American courtroom, and the punishment for sticking a 5-year-old's hand over a flame is not $100.

From newspaper accounts, Perez undercut his own argument. He said the father might have acted differently had he thought about it. If that's the judge's reasoning, he shouldn't say in the next breath that cultural differences entitle the father to a break.

Prosecutors filed felony charges and wanted a state prison term for Soto. I applaud the judge for not automatically throwing the book at Soto and agree that the case raises some provocative issues, such as the extent of parental authority and how to deter young boys from straying into future criminal behavior.

I'm just dumbfounded that the judge could ask all the right questions and come up with such an unbelievably bad answer.

Whether the proper sentence for the elder Soto should have been 30 days in jail, a few months, or longer, the judge shouldn't have used his courtroom to send a message that there's a "cultural" defense when it comes to physical and mental abuse of children.

A $100 fine is nothing more than the judge saying, "That flame wasn't all that hot, but don't do it again."

If the judge wanted to get philosophical before sentencing, he should have mused about the proper parental reaction to a young boy who swipes a pack of gum. He should have pondered whether being burned by your father might not have a more deleterious effect on a boy's future than stealing. Or this novel concept: whether stealing at age 5 might not be best handled by a parental lecture instead of physical torture.

OK, so Perez didn't want to be a robot on the bench. He wanted to give a first-time offender a misdemeanor conviction instead of a felony.

Understandable sentiment, but indefensible logic. To accept the judge's reasoning, Soto now would have to be saying, "Oh, I didn't realize you couldn't burn children's hands in America."

Instead, he says he knows what he did was wrong and regrets it.

I have a hunch he knew that all along.

And if Judge Perez is going to apply this kind of "thinking" on his future cases, it might be a good time for him to retire permanently.

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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