The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved a $4.5 million settlement payout to a convicted child molester who was held in a state hospital for 17 years awaiting trial on whether he could be committed as a sexually violent predator.
George Vasquez pleaded no contest in 1995 to four counts of lewd or lascivious acts on a child under 14 and was sentenced to 12 years in state prison. The case involved boys ages 6 to 8 years old from his South Los Angeles neighborhood.
After Vasquez had served his time, in September 2000, the District Attorney’s Office filed a petition seeking to have Vasquez committed to a state hospital as a sexually violent predator, arguing that he was too dangerous to be released and should be confined where he could receive mental health treatment.
A series of five deputy public defenders represented Vasquez, who was held at Coalinga State Hospital while awaiting trial on the prosecution’s petition, as the case dragged on without a trial for 16 years.
In 2016, in response to Vasquez’ objection to postponing his trial date once again, the trial court judge removed the Public Defender’s Office and appointed attorney Mark Brandt to represent Vasquez. Brandt filed a motion to dismiss the prosecution’s petition, saying his client’s constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated.
On Jan. 8, 2018, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Bianco ruled that Vasquez must be freed, citing “oppressive” delays and a “systematic breakdown of the public defender system.”
The District Attorney’s Office fought the issue and lost on appeal, with a three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejecting the bid to overturn Bianco’s decision.
“It may well be there was strong evidence in the People’s favor, but it was the government’s burden to prove Vasquez was an SVP and Vasquez had a right to present evidence showing he did not pose a risk to the public. He was denied this right for 17 years,” the appellate panel found.
The appellate panel noted in its ruling that Bianco had conceded the “potential risk to public safety that attends Mr. Vasquez’s release from custody, albeit 23 years after his crimes were committed.”
The ruling pointed out that if the prosecution had prevailed at trial from the outset, Vasquez would have been committed for just two years.
A long history of evaluation reports recommended Vazquez’s commitment as a sexually violent predator, according to the D.A.’s petition. One doctor who offered an evaluation in support of the petition said that over a seven-week period in 1994, Vasquez offered candy to at least five boys, ages 5 to 8, who lived in his neighborhood, if they would show him their private parts. After the boys complied, Vasquez allegedly forced them to orally copulate him, according to court documents.
However, one of two state psychologists who examined Vasquez concluded he no longer qualified for the SVP designation, according to Bianco’s original ruling.
Vasquez’ sister told the Los Angeles Times shortly after Bianco’s ruling that her brother was treated unfairly.
“He already paid his time. It’s unfair, the system was very unfair,” Ana Federico told the newspaper. “I know what he did was wrong, but why do poor people have to suffer more?”
Vasquez said he had been molested as a child by an adult male neighbor, according to The Times.
After Bianco’s ruling and before the appeal had been settled, Vasquez filed a lawsuit against the Public Defender’s Office alleging civil rights violations.
A summary corrective action plan presented to the Board of Supervisors said staff had been cut and attorneys felt they had insufficient resources to bring the case to trial. It also cited a “failure to obtain clear time waivers from clients who preferred to remain at the state hospital during court (hearings).”
Caseloads for the specialized unit tasked with handling the defense of accused SVPs increased dramatically after the passage of Jessica’s Law in 2007, Vasquez’ first public defender told The Times. That voter initiative added crimes qualifying as sexually violent offenses and reduced the number of victims required for a designation of sexually violent predator.
County attorneys cited the risks and uncertainties of litigation in recommending the $4.5 million settlement. The board approved the payout without comment.
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