Convicted molester could receive indefinite sentence
by Heather Muller , 10/13/2007
A hearing is under way in Humboldt County Superior Court to determine if a man twice convicted of molesting young children should be declared a sexually violent predator under California law.
Jerome Franz Gonzales, 61, is the respondent in the case — not the “defendant,” because he is in court to determine not what he has done in the past, but what he might do in the future.
During proceedings Thursday, there was little dispute about Gonzales’ past crimes.
Humboldt County Deputy District Attorney Allan Dollison and Public Defender Kevin Robinson both told the jury of nine women and three men that Gonzales had pleaded guilty to performing a sexual act on a 5-year-old girl he babysat in 1982.
Five years later, the attorneys said, he pleaded no contest to two charges that he had fondled a pair of 8-year-old girls at a New Year’s Eve party in 1987.
Gonzales served four years in prison and was paroled in 1992, but soon violated the terms of his conditional release when he moved into a residence also occupied by a woman with a young girl.
His parole was continued, but he was convicted in 1999 of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to four more years, during which the California Department of Corrections initiated the process of evaluating Gonzales for SVP status.
He was scheduled for release in 2003, but in 2002, a petition to have him incarcerated in a psychiatric facility was filed, and in 2004 his commitment was extended.
It was in 2006 that the District Attorney’s Office filed the current petition, which could return Gonzales to Atascadero State Hospital.
To prevail in the matter, Dollison needs to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that Gonzales committed two sexually violent offenses, that he suffers from a diagnosed mental illness and that the illness is such that he would likely re-offend if released.
The issues are complicated, but the stakes are quite high.
An SVP declaration could result in an indeterminate sentence, also called an involuntary civil commitment, in a locked psychiatric facility under the administration of the CDC.
In his opening argument, Dollison wasted no time telling jurors that he believed Gonzales met the criteria.
“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” Dollison said, adding that Gonzales’ past provided “a window into what he might do” in the future.
The prior molestation convictions were a matter of record, he said, and Gonzales was diagnosed with not one but three mental illnesses that, combined, increased his chances of re-offending.
“Jerome Franz Gonzales is a sexually violent predator,” he said.
Robinson shot back that jurors weren’t being asked to look into a window, but a crystal ball.
He noted that Gonzales’ most recent qualifying offense occurred more than 15 years ago, and that he had voluntarily undergone treatment since then.
In 2002, when the CDC initiated the SVP evaluation, prior to his scheduled release, Gonzales cooperated fully with examiners — but since that time has declined to do so, Robinson said, which means that current experts were basing their opinions on years-old exams.
It’s the equivalent of “looking into a crystal ball and guessing,” Robinson said.
He also expressed concerns about the SVP declaration process itself.
“It really determines what we are as a society when we allow quasi-criminal commitments,” he said.
Only one witness was called Thursday, Dr. Mohan Nair, a psychiatrist serving on the state Department of Mental Health’s SVP panel who testified for the prosecution.
Nair said he had performed approximately 200 evaluations under current SVP laws and had found in 14 out of 15 cases that the offender would not pose a substantial risk if released.
But he said repeatedly that he found Gonzales’ case “troubling.”
Even after completing treatment, he said, Gonzales reportedly told a mental health practitioner that he had recurring sexual fantasies about very young children. The respondent’s current refusal to participate in the Sexual Offender Commitment Program in Atascadero was additional cause for concern, Nair said.
“Mr. Gonzales is not going through the program,” he said, adding that he believed the respondent’s refusal to do so stemmed from a failure to acknowledge the problem.
The expert witness told the jury that child molestation is a crime of low detection, and participants in SOCP were “required to disclose not just the two they got caught on, but the 20 or 50 or 150 they got away with.”
He added that Gonzales had reportedly admitted in another setting to 10 sexual encounters with children.
And in his own descriptions of the prior offenses, Gonzales reportedly said, “I just did it in a loving way,” and “I was a child with a child.”
The respondent “describes his interactions with children as if they are peers,” Nair said, part of what he called an “emotional identification” and “sexual preoccupation” with children.
“This is a person who has a sustained interest in sexual activity toward children,” Nair said
He cited one psychological evaluation in which Gonzales said he did not believe he would commit another crime against a child — but then reportedly added, “That doesn’t mean I won’t. I’m a realist. I didn’t set out to do it in the first place.”
Nair said that in his professional opinion, Gonzales suffered from pedophilia, polysubstance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, and presents “a substantial, well-founded risk” of re-offending.
Proceedings are scheduled to resume Monday at 8:45 a.m. in courtroom two of the Humboldt County Courthouse.
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ER Testimony continues in SVP hearing 10/14/07