Thursday, July 20, 2006
Supreme Court to Review Ruling Throwing Out Conviction of Priest
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday agreed to review a ruling by this district’s Court of Appeal, which threw out a Catholic priest’s conviction on child molestation charges based on what the panel said was prosecutorial misconduct.
Justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco, voted unanimously to review the case of Fernando Lopez. A divided panel in this district’s Div. One held that Deputy District Attorney Darci Johnson crossed the line when she argued, among other things, that priests “commit crimes, and they commit horrendous crimes” and that “we all know why” the Roman Catholic Church has rules regarding contact between priests and minors.
A dissenting justice argued that the remarks were harmless in light of overwhelming evidence of Lopez’s misconduct.
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury found Lopez, who was a parish priest in a low-income and predominantly Hipanic area of he city, guilty of eight sex offenses involving three boys, following a trial before Judge Ruth Kwan.
One witness, age 13 when he first met Lopez, testified that the priest molested him, either in Lopez’s car or his residential quarters, on four occiasions. Another said Lopez attacked him in a church office when he was 19 or 20, and the third alleged victim, the brother of a volunteer secretary at the parish, said that Lopez touched him inappropriately on three occasions, including at a church retreat and once in the church basement.
The three testified that they did not know each other. The priest admitted that two of his accusers had been in his car, even though church officials testified that he and other priests were told to avoid being alone with minors in cars, but denied that anything improper occurred.
As to the third accuser, Lopez claimed he had never met the man before the preliminary hearing.
Justice Robert Mallano, writing for the Court of Appeal, said Johnson’s remarks were inflammatory and prejudicial, explaining:
“The prosecutor’s reference to ‘horrendous crimes’ committed by priests was not an allusion to some abstract or historical figure. Rather, given the almost daily news accounts of the scandal in the Catholic Church over pedophile priests, the jury was certain to think the prosecutor was referring to this scandal and suggting that defendant played a part in it. Arguing guilt by association constitutes misconduct.”
That misconduct was not harmless, Mallano said, in a case where the defendant denied the charges and there was no independent evidence of guilt or confession.
Justice Miriam Vogel concurred, while Justice Frances Rothschild argued that the remarks were not outrageous in the context in which they were made, which was the prosecutor’s argument that Lopez should not be given favorable treatment because of his profession, and that the cumulative testimony of the prosecution witnesses was so strong that reasonable jurors would have convicted Lopez even if the prosecutor had not made the objected-to comments.
The case is People v. Lopez, B18277.
In other conference action, the justices let stand a Fourth District Court of Appeal ruling requiring a trial judge to reconsider an order approving a settlement of a broad suit against residential landlords under Proposition 65. The attorney general had objected to the settlement as an artifice offering protection from future litigation to the defendants and large fees to the plaitniffs’ lawyers, but little benefit to the public.
The case is Consumer Defense Group v. Rental Housing Industry Members, G035101. The high court also rejected a request for depublication of the Court of Appeal opinion.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company