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Girls Given Sentences for Lying

Three in Garden Grove get 30 to 45 days, plus community service, after fabricating an assault that sent a man to jail for eight months.

March 05, 2004|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Three 12-year-old girls whose lies put an innocent man in jail for eight months pleaded guilty Thursday and were sentenced to Juvenile Hall and community service.

Two of the girls must each serve 45 days and the third must serve 30 -- the shorter sentence granted because she was considered less culpable, her lawyer said after the closed-door Orange County Juvenile Court hearing. The girls have already served most of their time while waiting in custody since their arrest Feb. 9.

"Believe me, they are awake now to what they did," said attorney Paula Drake, who represented the girl given the shortest sentence. "They're very remorseful."

The Orange County district attorney's office had pressed for the Garden Grove girls to serve eight months and 13 days on criminal conspiracy charges, one day more than 36-year-old drifter Eric Nordmark was incarcerated.

Thursday's sentences mean that one of the girls will get out Tuesday and the other two will be released March 24. The sentences include counseling and formal probation until age 21.

Nordmark was jailed in May after the girls, all 11 at the time, accused him of attacking them in a park. It was a story they concocted as an excuse for coming home late from school. Nordmark's trial ended abruptly in January, when, after two days, the girl who was his principal accuser admitted they made up the story.

Nordmark, now living in Seattle, has criticized the prosecution of the three girls, saying they need discipline rather than punishment. On Thursday he was equally critical of the sentence they received, saying he holds police -- against whom he has filed a claim -- responsible for his arrest.

"That's terrible. They're only children, for goodness' sake," he said. "Prosecuting and sentencing these kids is just a way to get the cops off the hook."

The girls' sentence sends the message that false accusations carry severe penalties, said Orange County Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Fell.

"These girls' lies were very detrimental to the life of this homeless man," Fell said outside the Orange courthouse. "Their lies jeopardized the integrity of the judicial system."

The girls' attorneys, however, said their clients should have been released Thursday.

"The 25 days they've spent in jail more than emphasized to them the seriousness of what they did," said Shirley MacDonald Juarez, attorney for the girl who confessed that the story was faked.

Juarez said it was not fair of Juvenile Court Commissioner Michael Cassidy to impose different sentences. "I think they were all in this together," she said.

Two of the girls wrote letters to the commissioner, expressing their feelings of shame, and the third made a statement to the court through her probation officer, their lawyers said.

"My client said she would kneel down in front of Nordmark and ask for his forgiveness if he were here," said attorney Saul Reyes.

He said probation officers recommended shorter sentences than the prosecutor requested probably because the girls are unlikely to break the law again.

"This is a one-time thing that snowballed and got out of hand," he said. "They are all traumatized and ashamed."

Cassidy had recommended that, if possible, the girls' 60 hours of community service be completed at a homeless shelter.

The parents of the girl who confessed said before the hearing that the court system has been too hard on all three.

"Instead of being punished more, she should be appreciated because she came forward and told the truth," said her mother, Veronica Mendez Ochoa. "For something like this, the punishment is way too much. The arrest alone was enough to scare them."

Since her daughter's arrest, the mother has been allowed a two-hour visit each week with the girl.

The girl's stepfather, who identified himself only as George, said the girl will have learned a valuable lesson by the time she's released.

"I can tell her I'm going to send her away or punish her if she gets in trouble, but this is real," he said. "She's going to take us a lot more seriously now."

He added that she will have to work to regain her parents' trust.

"She'll have to do that on her own," he said.

Fell, the prosecutor, declined to comment about the possibility of pressing obstruction-of-justice charges against Mendez Ochoa, a suggestion police made after learning that the three girls had deceived them. Juarez said after Thursday's hearing that she thought "those charges weren't an issue anymore."

Garden Grove Police Chief Joe Polisar said he did not know whether the investigation against the parents was over.

*

Times staff writers H.G. Reza and Jean-Paul Renaud contributed to this report.

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