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Prostitute With HIV Faces Felony

Court: Believing that the system has done too little to get an infected woman off the street, a deputy district attorney presses for a nine-year sentence.

July 22, 2002|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Growing up in South-Central Los Angeles, Lori-Ann Jones never crossed paths with Panchita Hall.

Jones went to Washington High School and Loyola Marymount University, picked up a law degree in Sacramento and became a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney.

Hall got as far as a diploma from Manual Arts High, then became a fixture on Figueroa Street--a career prostitute with an addiction to crack cocaine.

Hall, 46, has a rap sheet that stretches back to 1984. She was found to be HIV-positive after a court-ordered test in 1995, but continued soliciting and was convicted of prostitution six more times.

After her most recent arrest April 28, Hall's thick file landed on Jones' desk in the Compton courthouse. The prosecutor, furious at Hall's disregard for public health and the system's inability to stop her, considered filing an unheard-of attempted murder charge

"She doesn't care," Jones, 40, remembers thinking. "It's like she's someone walking around with a loaded gun on her hip, indiscriminately shooting people. She knows when she goes and stands on the corner she could pass on the AIDS virus."

Jones knew that no judge would let her file so severe a charge. But she was determined to make a statement out of this case. So today, when Hall appears at a pretrial hearing in Compton Superior Court, Jones will refuse to plea bargain and press for an enhanced sentence of up to nine years in prison--a striking contrast to the normal bargain that often frees prostitutes after a few months.

Prostitution is usually tried as a misdemeanor. But in Hall's case, Jones filed felony charges, using a 1988 state law that requires prostitutes who are HIV-positive and who have been informed of their blood test results to be charged with a felony upon their second arrest. Conviction carries a maximum three-year sentence.

Jones said she will ask for three times that much because the criminal justice system has failed to sufficiently punish Hall during her string of arrests for soliciting while infected.

The law was first invoked in Los Angeles County in 1990 against a male prostitute who was sentenced to two years in state prison.

Tens of thousands of prostitutes have been tested for HIV in the county as a result of the law, but only 216 have been convicted on a felony charge since 1995, officials said.

Rarely does felony prosecution lead to a long sentence, however.

"Usually they are [pleaded] out in some way," said Stuart Glovin, head deputy in the Compton public defender's office. "Most of these people who have a lifelong history of prostitution are desperate people with no place to turn. It's not an occupation of choice--it's more desperation than anything else."

Jones began her career as a prosecutor more than a dozen years ago, specializing in hard-core gang cases. One grisly example was the 1991 case of two reputed gang members who were found guilty of attempted murder in the drive-by shooting of an 11-year-old girl who--with a bullet lodged in her heart--carried her 2-year-old brother to safety.

Jones grew up near Vermont Avenue and 109th Street, not far from the Figueroa corridor, which has been plagued by prostitution for decades. When she speaks of her youth, she talks of her father, a retired school police officer who pastored a neighborhood church. He was wounded while on the job.

"He is a survivor," she said. "When I was little, my dad would say to me and my friends we could stay out but we had to be home before the lights came on. We knew what to stay away from."

Today, the mother of a 4-year-old boy handles conventional criminal cases, working more regular hours and having more flexibility over whether to file charges.

"Sometimes you get a guy down on his luck, stealing a razor blade, a loaf of bread and a package of hot dogs," she said. "It's obvious the guy needed something to eat and some personal hygiene."

Jones felt no such compassion toward Hall. The arrest that caused the women's paths to cross was made by an undercover policeman on a task force targeting Figueroa-area prostitutes.

Standing outside a motel on Figueroa at 95th Street, Hall allegedly waved at the officer as he drove into the parking area. After agreeing on a $10 fee, she was arrested on suspicion of prostitution and carrying drug paraphernalia, police say.

Last August, after her most recent prostitution conviction, Hall was put on probation for four years. Two days before her April arrest, a judge issued a warrant to bring her in: She had failed to show up for a progress report and left a drug rehabilitation program without permission.

"The defendant's behavior places the community at large at risk," a probation officer's report concluded. "She is either unable or unwilling to live a law-abiding lifestyle." The report recommended that she be sentenced to state prison.

Hall's mother said she told her daughter that she was crazy, wasting her life.

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