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Jury rejects 'Zoloft' defense, finds ex-detective guilty of rape

Anthony Nicholas Orban will next face a sanity hearing. If found to be sane, he probably faces a life term.

June 13, 2012|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Anthony Nicholas Orban, a former Westminster police detective, exits the courtroom after the opening statements of his trial in San Bernardino County. The jury found Orban guilty on Wednesday of all eight charges, including kidnapping and rape.
Anthony Nicholas Orban, a former Westminster police detective, exits… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

A San Bernardino County jury Wednesday rejected a controversial "Zoloft" defense presented by a former Westminster police detective accused of kidnapping and raping a waitress in 2010, finding the defendant guilty of all eight charges.

Anthony Nicholas Orban's attorney acknowledged from the outset that his client attacked the woman, but argued that the former detective was rendered mentally "unconscious" by a powerful dose of the prescription antidepressant and was not responsible for his actions.

A jury of eight women and four men deliberated less than a day before dismissing that defense and finding Orban guilty of kidnapping, two counts of rape, two counts of forced oral copulation, two counts of sexual penetration with a foreign object and one count of making a criminal threat.

The victim sat in the front row of the packed Rancho Cucamonga courtroom, reacting with a subtle smile as Superior Court Judge Shahla S. Sabet read the guilty verdicts. The victim's unflinching, graphic account of the sexual assault was the most compelling testimony given during the month-long trial.

Orban showed little emotion as the verdicts were read. His wife wept gently in the back of the courtroom.

Orban will face a sanity hearing to determine whether he knew the difference between right and wrong at the time of the attack. He almost certainly faces a life prison sentence if the jury determines he was sane. If declared insane, he would be sent to a state mental institution for treatment, and later could be released. The same jurors will be impaneled for the sanity proceeding.

"What it comes down to is whether, at the time of this incident, he understood the difference between right and wrong," Orban's attorney, James Blatt of Los Angeles, said outside the courtroom. "I believe [the jury] will keep an open mind in reference to the sanity phase."

The hearing is scheduled to begin Tuesday and testimony is expected to last two days.

The psychotropic effects of Zoloft again will be central to the sanity phase.

Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin of New York, a controversial critic of psychiatric drugs, will be the defense's sole medical expert. Earlier in the trial, Breggin testified that Orban had stopped taking the prescribed antidepressant, then resumed it at full dose, provoking a psychotic break during which he was "delirious" and not fully aware of his actions.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Debbie Ploghaus, in her closing argument earlier this week, called that defense a "bunch of baloney." She told jurors that Breggin's opinions ran counter to medical consensus on the drug's effects. Prosecution expert Dr. Douglas Jacobs, an associate clinical professor at Harvard, testified that Zoloft has been prescribed to millions of people and proved safe. He attributed Orban's actions more to alcohol consumption.

Orban had shared eight margaritas and two pitchers of beer with a friend, and was seeking sexual encounters before he kidnapped the victim at gunpoint and made her drive to a Fontana storage facility, where he raped her, Ploghaus told jurors.

"He had sex on the mind. Don't forget that," Ploghaus told jurors.

Ploghaus on Wednesday declined to comment on the verdict because the case is ongoing.

Proving insanity is a "high hurdle" and successful in a minuscule number of cases, said USC law professor Elyn Saks, head of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics. Even if a defendant can convince a jury that he has no memory of an incident, that by itself is not enough to absolve him of responsibility.

"It's a difficult case to make, and it's a difficult case to win," Saks said.

The victim, then 25 and working as a waitress, testified that Orban punched and slapped her throughout the sexual assault. He shoved his police service gun into her mouth, threatening to kill her if she continued crying. The victim believed killing her was his plan all along.

"He pulled the gun out and said, 'I think we'll continue this in the desert,'" she told jurors.

When Orban was distracted by an incoming cellphone call, the woman said, she jumped out of the car and ran to safety at a nearby liquor store.

Police later recovered Orban's gun, with his name on it, from the victim's car.

phil.willon@latimes.com

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