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Delivering pointed comments to prosecutors and legislators, a Sonoma County judge Tuesday dismissed a defendant's attempted sexual assault conviction, saying the mandatory life sentence was "cruel and unusual punishment" for a case in which the defendant never physically touched the victim.

Instead, in a rare judicial move, Judge Gary Medvigy replaced the jury decision with a lesser charge: residential burglary, which carries a maximum of six years in prison.

"The court can find no rationality in a mandatory life term with the facts and defendant before me," he said, dismissing the primary charge "in the interest of justice."

"Imposing a life term in this case is constitutionally impermissible," he said.

He also had stern words for prosecutors, suggesting it appeared they may have been more interested in getting a conviction than in serving justice.

The case involves Jaime Hernandez Gonzalez, 24, of Occidental, who was convicted last month of assault with the intent to commit a sex crime during a burglary. On Dec. 22, 2007, he entered a Cotati-area home through an unlocked sliding door, stripped naked and approached one of two young women who were sleeping there.

He removed the pajama bottoms of a 21-year-old woman as she and her 20-year-old friend screamed. Both women fled, as did Hernandez Gonzalez, without further incident.

Hernandez Gonzalez had no prior criminal record.

Judges can overturn juries' verdicts or modify their findings but do so very rarely and most often to correct legal errors. Medvigy said the jury didn't err but may have been confused on the legal requirements of intent to commit a crime.

Jurors are not permitted to know or consider potential punishments during deliberations. One juror in the case was dismissed after learning Hernandez Gonzalez faced a life sentence if convicted. He said he couldn't sleep knowing that was the potential outcome.

As word of Medvigy's unusual ruling spread throughout the Sonoma County legal community, veteran attorneys struggled to recall the last time a judge modified a jury verdict.

"In my 30 years, it's happened just a couple of times," said Bill Marioni, one of Hernandez Gonzalez's attorneys. "It's really rare. But I think the judge obviously made the right decision, given all the facts and all the circumstances here."

Defense attorney Walter Risse, a lawyer since 1978, called the decision "gutsy."

"A lot of judges wouldn't do that because of politics," he said. "They're worried about re-election."

The victim, who attended the hearing with her friend and parents, appeared emotional outside court. Her father and a family friend expressed disbelief at the ruling but declined to be formally interviewed.

The District Attorney's Office provided an e-mail response to calls seeking comment. A statement attributed to District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua said: "We are disappointed with Judge Medvigy's second-guessing a Sonoma County jury's guilty verdict."

"The judge's decision may allow a violent predator to return to the community much sooner than the jury's verdict would have allowed," the statement said.?"We have already contacted the Attorney General's Office to explore our appellate options."

Medvigy, a former prosecutor in the District Attorney's Office and a brigadier general in the Army Reserve, had expressed concerns throughout the Hernandez Gonzalez prosecution.

Prosecutor Tashawn Sanders maintained that Hernandez Gonzalez's actions clearly fit the elements of the crime -- that he entered a home with the intent to commit a sex crime. She argued he accomplished the assault by tussling with the woman over her pajamas and he indicated his sexual intent by removing his clothes and trying to remove hers.

After the verdicts, Hernandez Gonzalez's lawyer asked the judge to either overturn them or modify them with a lesser charge. Defense attorneys Marioni and Lynnette Brown argued that their client's intent was ambiguous and wasn't enough to overcome the victim's opposition.

On Tuesday, Medvigy denied the request to modify the verdicts, saying there was sufficient evidence for the panel to reach those conclusions.

But he said the law Hernandez Gonzalez was charged with was inappropriate for the specifics of the case.

In a lengthy statement he read from the bench, Medvigy called into question prosecutors' commitment to justice, suggesting they were simply seeking a conviction rather than appropriate punishment for the actual conduct.

"The analysis by the District Attorney's Office appears to be at best unsophisticated, especially in light of the singular purpose to seek a life sentence with no explanation other than 'it is possible,' " he said.

"The end result in this case is not justice."

He compared the charge to a completed rape outside the home, which has a maximum term of eight years in prison.

He repeatedly questioned Sanders about other charges that he suggested fit the facts of this case more closely and have more proportionate sentences: attempted rape, four years; assault with the intent to rape, six years; residential burglary, six years; aggravated trespassing, one year in jail; and residential indecent exposure, a misdemeanor or felony that could mean at most a year behind bars.

"Does the disparity in sentencing cause you any concern whatsoever?" he asked Sanders.

"No, your honor," she replied, emphasizing that Hernandez Gonzalez violated the safety of the woman's residence.

Hernandez Gonzalez followed the two women home, went into the home, went into their bedroom and approached them naked intent on some kind of sexual crime, she said.

"It was in the sanctity of the home," he said. "The home is a place of sanctuary."

Sanders said the jury thoughtfully considered the facts and determined Hernandez Gonzalez was guilty of the most serious charge.

The law he was charged with breaking was enacted as a result of a major revamping of sex-crime prosecutions nationwide in response to a child killing in Florida. In 2006, the so-called Jessica's Law was expanded in California to include attempted sexual assault during burglary, and it was given a mandatory life sentence as punishment.

Medvigy said he sympathized with the victim's trauma but said a mandated life sentence for a defendant with no previous criminal record, who used no violence and completed no sexual assault was disproportionately harsh.

The law "is poorly drafted" and "constitutionally may be overly broad" because it "severely punishes violent, aggravated and dangerous crimes in the same manner as crime involving minimal misconduct," he said.

"This over-inclusiveness raises the specter of cruel and unusual punishment and grossly disproportionate sentencing schemes for similar misconduct," he said.

Hernandez Gonzalez is scheduled to be sentenced May 14. He is being held in the Sonoma County Jail on $540,000 bail and an immigration hold.

Either side can appeal Tuesday's ruling.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 568-5312 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

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