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.