A child molester was expected to walk free this week, after a Los Angeles County judge ruled last month that repeated delays in bringing the man’s case to trial had violated his constitutional rights.
But at the last minute, prosecutors made a plea to a state appeals court to keep George Vasquez from returning to the community. He’s probably dangerous, they said, and should remain confined in a maximum-security state mental hospital.
During a hearing Tuesday, L.A. County Superior Court Judge James Bianco, who had previously ordered Vasquez to be released Wednesday, announced that the 44-year-old would remain at Coalinga State Hospital — at least for now.
The appeals court is planning to review the case after the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office argued that Bianco’s ruling was “erroneous.”
In the mid-1990s, Vasquez, then in his early 20s, was convicted of molesting several boys from his South L.A. neighborhood — he used candy, court records show, to lure his victims, ages 6 to 8, to an alleyway. A judge sentenced him to 12 years in state prison.
But before his scheduled release, prosecutors filed paperwork asking to have Vasquez confined for two years under California’s Sexually Violent Predator law, which allows the state to hospitalize people if a judge or jury determines they have a mental disorder making them likely to reoffend. (When Vasquez’s case was filed in 2000, the commitments were limited to two-year periods, but voters later approved a measure making the terms indefinite.)
Seventeen plus years pending trial is shocking to the conscience.
The request to have Vasquez confined as a sexually violent predator, however, never went to trial. Instead, year after year, his legal proceedings were delayed. In November 2016, when Vasquez was bounced to his fourth deputy public defender, he’d reached his limit.
“Enough is enough,” he told Bianco, who a month later kicked the public defender’s office from the case.
In his written ruling last month explaining his decision to release Vasquez, Bianco noted that one of the state’s two psychologists who had examined Vasquez for years had concluded that he no longer qualified as a sexually violent predator.
Bianco also noted that for years both prosecutors and defense attorneys requested postponements in the case. By 2014, however, the judge said that the delays came almost entirely from defense attorneys.
In an interview with The Times last month, then-Interim Public Defender Kenneth I. Clayman defended the office, saying he was proud of the unit that handles sexually violent predator cases. “We provide outstanding representation,” he said.
After the hearing last month, Vasquez’s attorney, Mark Brandt, praised the judge’s ruling as “courageous” and “well-reasoned,” adding that his client was eager to be reunited with his family.
But Vasquez’s release plan stalled Friday, when the district attorney’s office filed legal papers asking California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal to keep him in the state hospital as they reviewed the case.
Prosecutors asked the appellate justices to throw out Bianco’s decision and reset a trial date for Vasquez, noting that over the years the state’s psychologists had evaluated him two dozen times. In only one instance, prosecutors wrote, did a doctor conclude that Vasquez didn’t qualify as a sexually violent predator. Prosecutors argued that Bianco had “ignored the strategic benefit” to Vasquez in asking for delays — a “tactical” decision, prosecutors said, to postpone the trial as long as the doctors were still deeming him a sexually violent predator.
“The lower court’s ruling,” prosecutors wrote, “was simply erroneous.”
It’s very concerning to me...I’m concerned that some unsuspecting child will go outside to play and become a victim.
On Monday, Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss filed an order temporarily blocking Vasquez’s release and giving his attorney two weeks to file an opposing motion.
Throughout Tuesday’s hearing, Vasquez — who attended by camera from the hospital — clasped his hands and occasionally jotted notes. Vasquez nodded as his attorney told Bianco that he’d asked the appeals court for an extension, noting that he planned to bring in a lawyer who specializes in appellate cases.
Asked for comment after the hearing, Brandt said, “Seventeen plus years pending trial is shocking to the conscience.”
After the hearing, Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Ceballos said he views Vasquez as a threat, adding that his office will “do everything in our power to keep him at Coalinga.” Ceballos added that he believes the appellate decision could have sweeping significance, calling it a “test case” for other sexually violent predator cases across the state.
During a recent interview, L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey winced when asked about the possibility of Vasquez’s release.
“It’s very concerning to me,” she said. “I’m concerned that some unsuspecting child will go outside to play and become a victim.”
For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber