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Ruling Spurs Confusion in Old Sex Abuse Cases

October 05, 2003|Jean Guccione and Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writers

Jose Antonio Vasquez was arrested and jailed last year after DNA tests showed he had fathered the child of a teenager he allegedly raped 10 years ago. This year, a judge freed him, citing a U.S.Supreme Court decision blocking California's attempt to revive criminal prosecutions in older sex abuse cases.

Raul Juarez isn't as lucky. Citing the same high court ruling, a different judge decided that 1988 rape allegations against him would stand.

The two cases illustrate the confusion and uncertainty in California courts since the decision. There is no agreement on the most basic ground rule: how to apply the ruling.

Even though the two defendants faced similar charges for crimes committed a few years apart, two Los Angeles judges made rulings with contradictory outcomes. Their cases were identified in a review of hundreds of cases by prosecutors and defense attorneys since the Supreme Court ruling in June.

After the ruling, authorities predicted hundreds of cases would be dismissed, releasing a potential flood of child molesters into communities that would have no way to track them.

So far, slightly more than 50 inmates have been released from state prisons, including about a dozen convicted of crimes in Los Angeles County, according to the California Department of Corrections.

The most visible cases dismissed so far have been those of Roman Catholic priests accused of sexually assaulting children. Others may involve teachers accused of molesting students, parents accused of abusing their children and coaches accused of victimizing players.

The Supreme Court ruled that California had violated the U.S. Constitution when it passed a law retroactively extending the period for prosecuting those who sexually abused children. The 1994 law gave prosecutors one year after notification of such a crime to file criminal charges, no matter how long ago the incident occurred.

The main issue that attorneys and judges are grappling with now is determining the cut-off date for prosecution, based on the Supreme Court decision.

"It's not as clear as everybody thinks it is," said Gigi Gordon, a defense lawyer appointed by the court to review hundreds of cases for indigent inmates.

Defense attorneys argue that all cases alleging crimes that occurred before 1994 -- the date the California law went into effect -- should be thrown out. Prosecutors counter that only cases from before 1988 should be dismissed. Crimes that took place in the six years between 1988 and 1994 should be fair game, prosecutors say, because the statute of limitations had not expired on those crimes before the law was enacted.

Applying the new Supreme Court decision has been especially frustrating for prosecutors, whose job usually is putting criminals behind bars.

"We have to do our job whether we like it or not," said John K. Spillane, who is overseeing the review of hundreds of the cases for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

The legal process doesn't end when a judge throws out a conviction. DNA samples must be removed from the state database. Names must be stricken from sex offender registries. And court fines and fees assessed at conviction must be refunded.

"All those things have to be undone because they couldn't happen in the first place," said Judge David S. Wesley, who presides over the criminal courts in Los Angeles County.

The final tally of cases affected by the Supreme Court ruling is far from complete. In Los Angeles County alone, prosecutors and defense lawyers are reviewing more than 750 cases.

"It's been a very time-consuming process," said Michael Goodman, a deputy alternate public defender who works in the appellate division.

It took almost eight weeks just to compile a master list of cases for review, because early computer runs were incomplete. Lawyers are now digging through archives to retrieve dusty files that were closed long ago, and sifting through documents spread around 43 courthouses throughout the county.

The ruling "caught everybody by surprise," said Dave LaBahn, executive director of the California District Attorney's Assn. in Sacramento.

Surprisingly, few inmates have inquired about their cases, according to defense attorneys. Victims have urged prosecutors to look for new allegations that fall within permissible time limits and that could prevent a defendant from being released.

"We want them to continue to look for victims," said Mark Kelegian, legal advisor for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. "It never happens just once."

Kelegian pointed to the case of Michael Wempe, a retired Roman Catholic priest who had been charged with sexual abuse in cases dating to the 1970s. The charges were dismissed because of the high court ruling. But Wempe was rearrested last month after a victim read about the dismissals and came forward to allege that Wempe had molested him.

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