Did the justice system work in the celebrated case of Jane Doe versus the three then-teenage boys who sexually assaulted and videotaped her four years ago while she lay unconscious on a pool table?
In a way, yes.
But in a much bigger way, no.
It worked in that Orange County Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno handed down a sentence that made sense in several ways.
He condemned the defendants' behavior on that July 2002 night. Yet, in handing each a six-year sentence, he sent a message about repugnant behavior without consigning the defendants -- all were 17 at the time -- to a lengthy stretch in state prison that could well ruin their lives. He also handed out equal punishment, a stroke of jurisprudence genius, in that the assault could have been aborted if any of the three had had the moral courage that night to stop it.
So I give Briseno high marks for bringing this case back into the realm of reality. Prosecutors had asked for individual sentences of 12, 10 and six years for the defendants.
But, as wise as the judge was, a system failure almost trumped him. And that failure was the inability of the two sides to settle the case long ago.
That came crashing home to me Friday as Jane Doe, 16 at the time of the assault -- in which she was penetrated with a Snapple bottle, a cigarette and a pool cue -- told a packed courtroom that the incident had traumatized her. "These three men haunted my dreams, and they still do," she said.
The incident left her, she said, with myriad emotional problems, including anger, betrayal and a sense of worthlessness. Her parents' marriage suffered, and defense investigators revealed her identity both in her neighborhood and after she enrolled in a new school. Suicide crossed her mind. She said she felt "abused" when testifying at the two trials. And, of course, she will have the image of the 21-minute video, with her lying "like a rag doll," in her mind forever.
None of that had to happen.
It happened because the Orange County district attorney insisted on throwing the book at the defendants from the get-go, filing charges that would have kept them in prison for at least 20 years if convicted. The defense was forced to counterattack at full bore.
Then, when the first trial ended in a hung jury that leaned toward acquittal, prosecutors had to regroup for a second trial. One element of that was to have Jane Doe -- for the first time -- watch the video she now says haunts her. And even though she said at the time she was more than willing to testify at a second trial, we're all left to wonder if doing so could possibly have helped her.
What would an early settlement have done? It would have spared Jane Doe the relentless defense attacks on her character. It would have spared whatever embarrassment she endured in her community and school. Yes, she would have had the knowledge that she'd been sexually assaulted, but she wouldn't have had the searing 21 minutes embedded in her memory. She never would have had to see the videotape.
And what did the prosecutors get in exchange for their zeal? A sentence that can't possibly have been that much greater than what a settlement would have gotten them three or four years ago.
John Barnett, one of the defense attorneys, said after Friday's sentencing, "I guarantee you that had there been a reasonable resolution [from prosecutors] presented before the first trial, it would have been resolved."
The three defendants probably would have accepted something in the three- to four-year prison range, Barnett said, because "their exposure was so great and the evidence was compelling against them."
He then added something equally interesting: "And the case should have been settled before the second one."
He wouldn't elaborate, but I'll make the logical presumption that prosecutors, having been badly beaten at the first trial, offered a deal before the second one. That none was worked out suggests that the defense, perhaps flush with confidence from the first trial, rejected it.
Barnett would say only, "More damage was done, unquestionably, to all the parties by having the litigation go forward. That is so obvious."
If the defendants said no to a better deal than they got Friday, they'll have to live with it. But it all starts with the district attorney's original misjudging of the case, which the six-year sentences bore out.
Was it worth the damage to Jane Doe to push this case forward? From what she said Friday about its effect on her life, I don't know how anyone could think so.
As he began Friday's proceedings, Briseno referred to the cloudy skies outside and said solemnly, "The weather fits the occasion. Everyone who's present is sad."
He was right. But it didn't have to be that way.
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at email@example.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.