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Split Opinion Delays Rapist's Release

Court: Two experts can't agree if Patrick Ghilotti would be a public threat. State law permits just one more review.

July 27, 2002|KAREN ALEXANDER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — Two psychologists who initially declared imprisoned serial rapist Patrick Ghilotti safe for release have split on whether the first sexual predator to complete a state-mandated treatment plan continues to present a "substantial danger" to society.

The opposing opinions, revealed Friday, came after the California Supreme Court issued new standards for the release of sexually violent predators. But even with specific new guidance from the high court, the continuing controversy over Ghilotti's case highlights the difficulty experts have in determining what level of danger constitutes a public threat, and which repeat offenders are likely to strike again.

Ghilotti, 46, will remain locked up at Atascadero State Hospital while he is reevaluated by a different pair of state-appointed experts. Their findings will be delivered at a hearing Sept. 5 in Marin County Superior Court.

This next round of evaluations could represent the state's last hope of keeping Ghilotti in confinement. According to a 1996 California statute, the state's petition to keep a predator confined after he has served his sentence may be reviewed only twice. If the new evaluators are also split, or if both agree that Ghilotti does not present a serious danger, he will be released.

If the evaluators agree that Ghilotti's release would put the public at "a serious and well-founded risk," he is then entitled to have his case heard by a jury. Judges also have the latitude to reject the evaluators' findings, the state high court ruled.

"I'm pleased to the extent that we're still in the ballgame," said prosecutor Alan Charmatz, who has fought to keep Ghilotti behind bars. "We still have the possibility of getting another two-year commitment" allowed for by state law.

Ghilotti has been convicted of four rapes and has admitted to six others. After serving a 12-year prison term for the most recent rape, he was committed to Atascadero, where he has spent the last four years. Reached by telephone Friday, Ghilotti declined to comment.

Under California law, the state may recommit repeat sex offenders to mental institutions two years beyond their original prison sentence if the felons are found "likely" to commit sexual violence again. Ghilotti was set to be freed in Marin County last December after three mental health experts testified that he no longer needed to be in custody. The state attorney general fought Ghilotti's release and appealed to the high court.

In its 5-2 ruling in April, the court decided on a standard that made it easier for judges to keep sexually violent predators behind bars if there is "a serious and well-founded risk" that the perpetrator would strike again. That "does not mean that the risk of reoffense must be higher than 50%," Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for the majority.

The court also ruled at the time that evaluators may consider promises by an inmate to undergo therapy and take drugs to diminish his sex drive.

In light of the court's clarified guidelines, Marin County Superior Court Judge John Stephen Graham ordered the evaluators to reconsider Ghilotti's fitness. Their split opinions were revealed in court on Friday, although the contents of their reports remain under seal.

Although Ghilotti had agreed to certain conditions for his release--including that he receive drugs to reduce his sex drive and wear an electronic locating device--the restrictions would not be required if the examiners find him fit to be released.

"He won't have the legal obligation to do anything except register as a sex offender" with the state, said Charmatz, Marin County's deputy district attorney. "It would be us going to him and asking, 'what are you willing to do to protect the public?' "

One of Ghilotti's victims, who attended the brief court hearing Friday, said that she is "more or less resigned to the fact that he's going to be released eventually."

Nonetheless, she said, "I'm nervous for my granddaughter and for my daughter and my friends if he is released.... My personal feeling is that he's going to kill somebody if they let him out."

California's Sexually Violent Predator Act is one of at least 15 similar laws across the nation that permit repeat sex offenders to be committed to mental institutions after serving their prison terms.

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