Man Held 17 Years Without Trial Ordered Free by Appellate Court

(CN) – Attributing a California man’s 17-year detention awaiting trial for commitment as a sexually violent predator to a “systematic breakdown in the public defender system,” a California appellate court ruled Wednesday the man be released from a state hospital without trial.

In a lengthy opinion, a three-judge panel of the Second Appellate District in Los Angeles affirmed a finding that California is responsible for the “breakdown” that caused the delay, violating George Vasquez’s 14th Amendment right to a timely trial.

“This breakdown forced Vasquez to choose between having prepared counsel and a timely trial. Yet under our Constitution he had a right to both,” Justice Gail Ruderman Feuer wrote for the unanimous panel.

Vasquez was convicted in 1995 of four counts of committing lewd or lascivious acts on a child under 14 years of age and sentenced to 12 years in state prison. Before his September 2000 release, Los Angeles County prosecutors petitioned to commit Vasquez to a state hospital as a sexually violent predator, citing in part his diagnosis as a pedophile.

Over the next 17 years, Vasquez’s hearings and trial dates were delayed dozens of times so a series of six court-appointed attorneys could prepare for trial.

Vasquez finally objected to the delays in 2016, after his fifth court-appointed attorney asked for another trial continuance. Superior Court Judge James Bianco removed the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office from the case and appointed a bar panel attorney to represent Vasquez, who moved to dismiss the petition for violation of Vasquez’s right to a speedy trial.

Bianco dismissed the petition in January and ordered Vasquez released, calling the way the public defender’s office had handled the case “dysfunctional.”

“The risk of an erroneous deprivation of liberty here is considerable, given that if Mr. Vasquez had gone to trial timely and been committed, he was facing just a two-year commitment,” Bianco ruled. “Instead, he has been detained without trial for 17 years.”

Prosecutors appealed, seeking a jury trial on their petition to commit Vasquez. But the appellate panel found Thursday Bianco had correctly applied factors set forth in two U.S. Supreme Court decisions – 1972’s Barker v. Wingo and 1976’s Mathews v. Eldridge – to dismiss the petition.

The factors include an “extraordinary” delay of 17 years; the “breakdown” in the public defender system; and Vasquez’s actions in requesting a timely trial, given his permission to delay trial multiple times so his attorneys could prepare his defense.

Barker, Feuer noted, rejected ‘the rule that a defendant who fails to demand a speedy trial forever waives his right’ to one.

“Vasquez’s failure to object to the delays,” she wrote, “cannot be weighed against him given his stated desire that [Vasquez’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Terry] Shenkman be prepared for trial.”

According to the panel’s ruling, Shenkman was granted multiple case continuances due in part to a 50 percent cut in attorney staffing in the public defender’s office, which slowed her trial preparation. Months before Vasquez’s January 2017 trial date and against Shenkman’s wishes, the office took her off Vasquez’s case when it transferred her to another unit.

The Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office deferred a call seeking comment to Shenkman and Deputy Public Defender Ellen Coleman, who also represented Vasquez. Neither attorney had replied by press time Wednesday evening.

“The People ascribe to Vasquez a desire to avoid trial,” Feuer wrote. “However, there is no evidence in the record to support the People’s contention that Vasquez did not want to have a trial on the petition. Rather, we find substantial evidence supports the trial court’s conclusion that Vasquez ‘was forced to choose between proceeding to trial with an unprepared attorney, or giving up his right to a speedy trial—truly a Hobson’s choice. Under these circumstances, it is unfair to give significant weight to Mr. Vasquez’s failure to assert his right to a speedy trial.'”

Feuer, however, also assigned blame for the delay to Bianco, noting he granted continuances over 50 times during the first 14 years of the case. She also slammed Bianco’s failure to remove the public defender’s office as Vasquez’s counsel for two years after Vasquez demanded a quicker trial.

“While we have found this breakdown in the public defender system is attributed to the state, the trial court failed Vasquez as well,” Feuer wrote. “[T]he trial court should have considered whether to remove the public defender’s office so that an attorney with adequate time to prepare the case could assume Vasquez’s representation. Indeed, the trial court ultimately took this action, but not until almost two years had passed, when Vasquez spoke up and declared, ‘Enough is enough.'”

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

Presiding Justice Dennis Perluss and Justice Laurie Zelon joined Feuer on the panel.

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