An appellate court has found that a convicted sex offender has been denied due process in the nearly 18 years since he finished his prison sentence, but continued to be held in state mental hospitals without the allegation of his being a sexually violent predator ever going to a jury.
In the ruling issued Tuesday, a panel of California’s Second Appellate District agreed with a Los Angeles Superior Court decision that George Vasquez, now 45, should be released.
The court faulted a “systemic breakdown in the public defender system” in the years of delays that put off the commitment trial to which Vasquez was entitled when the Los Angeles County District Attorney petitioned to have him declared a sexually violent predator.
“This breakdown forced Vasquez to choose between having prepared counsel and a timely trial,” wrote Justice Gail Ruderman Feuer in her opinion.
The office of the Los Angeles County Public defender declined to comment. The District Attorney’s Office has not revealed whether it will try another appeal. Absent that, the case will return to mental health court, which issued the ruling last year that Vasquez should be released without the long-delayed commitment trial.
According to his attorneys Robert S. Gerstein and Mark P. Brandt, Vasquez remains held at the Coalinga State Hospital, a high security facility that houses primarily sexually violent predators, and provides treatment programs. The attorneys are hopeful Vasquez will now be freed within two months.
At age 21, Vasquez was convicted in 1995 of four counts of committing lewd or lascivious acts on a child under the age of 14. He served five years in state prison, then on his release was transferred immediately to a state mental hospital.
The law permits a convict to remain detained temporarily as an alleged sexually violent predator on the opinion of two therapists and a judge’s finding of probable cause, but requires trial to make the final determination. At the time, a commitment was limited to two years, and any extension required a new trial. And yet, Vasquez is in his ninth two-year period without a single commitment trial.
In Vasquez’s case, that trial was repeatedly delayed as new lawyers were repeatedly appointed to take his case. Some asked for continuances on the grounds they were not prepared.
Vasquez agreed to the delays, but his attorneys argued he cannot be held responsible, given the option of going to trial and having his fate presented by an attorney who did not feel prepared to represent him.
“Enough is enough,” Vasquez objected after his fifth attorney “requested yet another continuance,” as the episode was recounted in the appellate opinion. Superior Court Judge James Bianco relieved the Public Defender’s Office and appointed Brandt, who moved to dismiss the DA’s petition.
The years of delay and the affirmed ruling leave undetermined the underlying question of whether Vasquez is in fact a sexually violent predator, and whether his release due to a breakdown in the justice system will imperil public safety.
His attorneys pointed out that after a later examination of Vasquez, one of the clinical psychologists no longer classifies Vasquez as an SVP, though other therapists disagree. Though barring another appeal and a reversal, a jury will never be asked to make that decision.
“It is the state’s burden to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that this man is a continuing danger,” said Gerstein. “And we haven’t gotten to that.”
Gerstein noted the opinion references cutbacks in the public defender’s office, at one point involving the elimination of paralegal positions and half the attorney staff.
In recent years, the office has undergone turmoil, and the position of Public Defender had remained unfilled two years until last month, when County Supervisors appointed attorney Ricardo Garcia.