April 15, 2009

Brave judge tosses sexual assault conviction

Jessica's Law: Cruel and unusual punishment?

Jurors in criminal cases are generally kept blind as to the punishment that will be imposed if they find someone guilty. For that reason, one juror was dismissed during deliberations in a trial in Sonoma County, California, when he learned the potential outcome. The juror said he could not sleep once he realized that his guilty vote on a sexual assault charge could send the young defendant to prison for life.

Apparently, the judge in the case was similarly troubled.

Instead of sentencing 24-year-old Jaime Hernandez Gonzalez to life in prison yesterday, Judge Gary Medvigy dismissed the jury's conviction of assault with the intent to commit a sex crime during a burglary. He replaced it with a lesser conviction, residential burglary, which carries a maximum of six years in prison.

But the judge -- a former prosecutor and an Army reserves brigadier general who was decorated for his service in Iraq -- didn't stop there. In tossing the conviction, he read a lengthy statement questioning prosecutors' commitment to justice in light of the facts of the case.

Sentencing a young man with no prior criminal record to spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime that involved no violence or completed assault is so "grossly disproportionate" that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, the judge ruled.

In the rather bizarre case, Gonzalez entered a home through an unlocked sliding door, stripped naked, and accosted two sleeping women, removing the pajama bottoms of one. When the women screamed and ran away, Gonzalez fled too. The women testified that Gonzales appeared "zombie-like" or "comatose" during the assault, even when they screamed at him.

The judge slammed the 2006 Jessica's Law expansion under which Gonzalez was convicted, which mandates life imprisonment for sexual assault during a burglary, as "poorly drafted." He said it may be so overly broad as to be unconstitutional, because it requires the same punishment for crimes "involving minimal misconduct" as those involving severe violence and danger.

The District Attorney’s Office expressed outrage and threatened an appeal.

Meanwhile, the legal community in sleepy Sonoma County was abuzz over the judge's highly unusual action, according to news reporter Lori Carter, who covered the trial for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. Carter quoted a veteran attorney as calling the decision "gutsy":

"A lot of judges wouldn't do that because of politics. They're worried about reelection," said defense attorney Walter Risse.

Medvigy's conscientious stance will definitely cost him. The public hysteria over sex offending is manifested in the online comments to the Press-Democrat coverage, with vitriolic attacks and calls for the judge's ouster far overshadowing the few attempts at rational discourse.

The Press-Democrat article and related background coverage is HERE.

Photo credit: Press-Democrat

Hat tip: Tim Derning