(CN) — A state appeals court tossed on procedural grounds a case involving charges of child rape and human trafficking against the leader of a Mexican megachurch who lived in Southern California.
A three-judge panel of the California Second District Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that state prosecutors made a procedural error that violated Naason Joaquin García’s rights to a speedy trial and threw out the criminal complaint against him based on that error.
“Absent a personal and express time waiver by García, he was entitled to a preliminary hearing within the statutory period applicable to the amended complaint,” California Associate Justice Laurie Zelon wrote on behalf of the panel in the 33-page ruling.
García neither waived his right to the hearing nor was he given it within the stipulated time period, meaning the case should be dismissed, the justice wrote.
García, the self-proclaimed apostle of La Luz del Mundo — which means “The Light of the World” in Spanish — was arrested in June and accused of participating in human trafficking and child rape. He was arrested alongside his associates, Susana Medina Oaxaca and Alondra Ocampo, who were all charged with a total of 29 felony counts. All three have denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty.
When García and the other defendants were initially arraigned on the criminal complaint filed by the state of California in June, García personally waived his right to a speedy preliminary hearing. However, after the state filed an amended complaint in July that contained three more felony charges, García was not offered the choice to waive another preliminary hearing within ten days.
García says that failure to offer another preliminary hearing was a violation of the state and federal constitution that protects defendants’ rights to a speedy trial.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel agreed.
“García’s July 16, 2019 arraignment and plea on the amended complaint was a new triggering event that required a preliminary hearing to be held within 10 court days absent García’s personal time waiver,” Zelon wrote.
It is not clear how Tuesday’s dismissal affects the other defendants in the case.
The state has argued the amended complaint is not a triggering event and since García already waived his right to a preliminary hearing, he has no grounds for asking for dismissal.
But the panel disagreed, instead issuing the ruling that ordered the lower court to dismiss the complaint against García.
The California Attorney General’s Office said it was still reviewing the ruling but noted García remained in custody.
The state could appeal to the California Supreme Court. Should it get tossed, the dismissal of such a high-profile case involving such heinous crimes on procedural grounds would amount to a significant misstep for state prosecutors.
The ruling also shed light on other material missteps by the prosecution, who were at one point found to be in contempt of court by Superior Court Judge Theresa Sullivan due to a failure to produce discovery ordered by the court.
A phone call to García’s lawyer, Alan Jackson, was not immediately returned Tuesday.
García was a minister in Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California before becoming the church’s leader.
State prosecutors accused García of coercing underage girls into performing sex acts by telling them that refusing would be going against God, the initial indictment said.
Authorities alleged that García forced the victims, who were members of the church, to sexually touch themselves and each other. One of his co-defendants allegedly took nude photographs of the victims and sent the pictures to García, according to the criminal complaint.
García told one of the victims and others in 2017 after they had completed a “flirty” dance wearing “as little clothing as possible,” that kings can have mistresses and an apostle of God cannot be judged for his actions, the complaint states.
“Crimes like those alleged in this complaint have no place in our society. Period,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in June when the charges were filed. “We must not turn a blind eye to sexual violence and trafficking in our state.”
Becerra’s investigation began in 2018, prompted in part by a tip to the California Department of Justice through an online clergy abuse complaint form.
The dismissal, should it happen, would add another layer of embarrassment for California and the U.S., as the case was widely perceived to be an example of how the administration of justice in America was superior to how it operates in Mexico.
There were similar allegations made against García and La Luz del Mundo in Mexico for years but nothing official ever materialized. For instance, in 1997, García’s father was accused of sexual abuse of minors but charges were never filed.
“It shows the enormous difference between the quality of law enforcement in Mexico and the United States,” sociologist Bernardo Barranco of the Center for the Study of Religions in Mexico told the Associated Press in June. “In Mexico, unfortunately, there is an innate protection for clergy, not just for the Luz del Mundo.”