A top-ranking prosecutor with the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office said in court Thursday that her office still contemplated seeking a 10-year prison sentence in a child molestation case despite agreeing to a plea bargain that would permit probation.
Assistant District Attorney Christine Cook said the resulting distress for the 14-year-old victim and her family stemmed from a "misunderstanding" in communication over potential outcomes of the negotiated plea, which resulted in the defendant's release from jail and the possibility he would escape prison altogether.
There was no shortage of regret over the disarray that now exists in the case, which had been scheduled for sentencing Thursday but was, instead, put on hold until the court could determine if the negotiated plea deal should, or even could, be set aside as the victim requests.
In the meantime, Chief Deputy Public Defender Kristine Burk said she planned to try to bring the state Attorney General's Office in on the case. She said the District Attorney's Office should be recused from the case, given that members of the staff would now be witnesses in the matter involving the disputed plea bargain and had, in effect, joined with the victim to "wiggle out of a contract they got into."
Even as he stood by the June 25 agreement that allowed defendant Arnold M. Luz to leave jail with the promise of probation, Superior Court Judge Gary Medvigy repeatedly expressed unhappiness with whatever omissions left the young victim feeling betrayed.
"This miscommunication should never have occurred with the victim," Medvigy said. "This should never have happened."
The judge also rued the resulting uncertainty for Luz, 46, who, in what Medvigy termed an extremely "novel" case, pleaded guilty to serious criminal offenses without ever having laid a hand on his victim.
"This is a roller coaster for him, too," Burk said of her client, noting that, even with her legal training, recent developments have thrust her into "uncharted territory."
The victim and her mother have petitioned the judge to withdraw his acceptance of Luz's plea on grounds it violates their state constitutional rights as victims under Marsy's Law, a state law that, among other provisions, guarantees victims the right to be notified and heard at critical stages in all criminal cases.
They contend prosecutors told them of the intention to negotiate a plea last June, but only one that would result in prison time for Luz, even though one prosecutor in the room, Chief Deputy Bill Brockley, already had agreed three days earlier to strike special allegations excluding probation and knew the judge intended to grant probation in the case.
The girl and her mother decided against attending court the next day only to read in a newspaper story that Luz was being set free from jail with no further incarceration likely. They missed, they said, an opportunity to voice their displeasure.
The judge's willingness to hear arguments on their motion to nullify the plea, scheduled for Oct. 7, is at least "forward progress," the victim's mother said Thursday.
"The plea was not vacated today, but he was not sentenced today," her attorney, Amy Terrible, said. "Everybody hit pause, and that's a step in the right direction. People are listening."
Luz at one point faced more than two decades in prison if convicted on multiple felony counts of molesting the then-13-year-old girl, with whom he repeatedly engaged in phone sex, authorities said.