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Cell Doors Swing Open After Ruling on Molestation Cases

June 28, 2003|Tracy Wilson and megan Garvey | Times Staff Writers

It was 2:26 a.m., and Lawrence Lovell was one of the first out. The 55-year defrocked priest awaiting trial on charges of molesting four altar boys at the historic San Gabriel Mission left Los Angeles County Jail after less than a week behind bars.

Twelve hours later, Michael Wempe left his jail cell with a smile on his face. The 63-year-old retired priest, whose bail had been set two weeks ago at $2 million, had been charged with molesting five boys 20 years ago.

Both men have denied the charges against them. At hearings next week, their cases are likely to be dismissed, prosecutors say.

And so it went Friday, as prosecutors, defense attorneys and the state attorney general's office scrambled to come to grips with the repercussions of a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating a California law that had allowed decades-old child molestation cases to be prosecuted.

Lovell and Wempe are among hundreds of people -- some convicted, some confessed, some still awaiting trial -- who will be released from jails and prisons across California or whose cases will be dropped as a result of Thursday's decision.

The five justices in the high court majority ruled that California had violated the Constitution's ban on ex post facto -- after the fact -- laws when the Legislature decided to change the time limit for bringing criminal charges in child sex-abuse cases and made the new limit retroactive to cover long-ago cases.

For many prosecutors, victims' advocates and police, the court's decision was hard to take.

The affected cases all involve not just allegations of abuse, but strong corroborating evidence, which was required under the 1994 law that the high court struck down.

"These are cases where almost always the perpetrator admitted the abuse in either direct interviews with investigators or the victims played a role in gathering evidence, making ... phone calls or meeting with the person while they were wired," said Kevin Murphy, a sex crimes prosecutor in Alameda County.

Friday morning, Murphy dismissed the case against Stephen Kiesle, a former priest who had told investigators that he molested a number of children three decades ago.

Kiesle had served time in the late 1970s in a separate child molestation case.

In Santa Clara County, Assistant Dist. Atty. Chuck Willingham spent long hours after the ruling, calling victims to let them know the outcome. About 100 cases in his county will be affected.

"I'm sorry," he told nearly a dozen men and women with whom he had worked to build strong cases. "This is terrible, and there's really nothing we can do about it."

The response, Willingham said, has been "anger, disdain, confusion, a lacking of understanding as to how this could have possibly happened, resignation to outrage. These are not easy conversations to be a part of."

Willingham mentioned one case involving a husband and wife convicted on multiple counts of molesting children. A sentencing hearing had been scheduled for them for next week and they faced life in prison. Instead, they will be released.

"The reality is, they won the child sexual predator lottery yesterday," Willingham said. "They won the jackpot." He also noted that, with their convictions overturned, those getting out of jail will not be required to register as sex offenders.

"You're scot-free," he said. "Thank you very much."

But Kay Duffy, attorney for Father Carl Sutphin, 71, who is charged with 14 counts of molestation, disputed that evaluation.

Her client may no longer face prison as a result of the court ruling, but his life has been turned upside down by being publicly labeled a child molester, she said.

"I don't think anybody is walking away from this thinking they got away with something," Duffy said.

"These people have been tried and convicted in the press already and they still have to live with that stigma for the rest of their lives."

Sutphin's lawyers have agreed to wait until after his alleged victims are contacted before seeking dismissal of the charges against him.

Ventura County Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Frawley, who has been part of the prosecution effort against Sutphin, sighed as he talked about the slow and painstaking process now facing prosecutors.

"Here's our problem," Frawley said. "Not only is there a lot to do, but there is a great deal of disappointment walking the halls here. A lot of people put in a lot of effort to make those cases happen."

His prosecutors have not yet dismissed any cases but they have identified at least 20 that are likely to be overturned as a result of the decision.

The case against Father Fidencio Silva, 53, is one example.

Silva, a Catholic priest who from 1978 until 1986 ran the altar boy program at a church in Oxnard, was charged with 25 counts of child molestation in March, after a yearlong investigation.

Frawley, a supervisor on the case, said 12 to 14 alleged victims had been interviewed.

The process was emotional and time-consuming and, now, for naught.

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