A Sonoma County judge who reduced a jury's verdict against a man convicted of trying to sexually assault a young woman has modified his ruling to include a charge that requires the defendant to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
In an order that generated significant public debate, Superior Court Judge Gary Medvigy last week dismissed Jaime Hernandez Gonzalez's attempted sexual assault conviction, saying a lifetime prison term required by the charge was unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual" because the punishment was vastly disproportionate to the facts of the case.
Instead, Medvigy found Hernandez Gonzalez, 24, guilty of a lesser charge, first-degree burglary, which carries a maximum of six years in prison.
Hernandez Gonzalez went inside a Cotati-area house in December 2007, stripped naked and confronted a woman in her bed. Clutching a wad of his clothes in one hand, he pulled off the woman's pajama bottoms as she screamed. The woman fled, along with another woman in the house, as did Hernandez Gonzalez.
Medvigy's decision quickly spread throughout the county's legal community and beyond, sparking condemnation and support.
Critics, including sexual assault victim advocates, said the judge minimized the crime and overrode the jury's findings, reached after a full day of deliberations. In a news release, District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua characterized Medvigy's ruling as "second-guessing" the jury's verdict.
Supporters championed what they called Medvigy's independent thinking and courage to make a ruling he believed was just, despite its potential unpopularity. Some pointed to Medvigy's history as a sex-crime prosecutor and decorated Army veteran as proof of his righteous intent. He also has served as a trainer for sexual assault victim advocates.
On Wednesday, apparently trying to clarify his intent and clear up any legal ambiguities, Medvigy summoned attorneys in the Hernandez Gonzalez case to his courtroom and, on his own legal motion, modified his original ruling.
Medvigy vacated his burglary ruling, which had no sex-crime component, and replaced it with an assault with the intent to commit rape, a charge that is closely related to the original one sought by prosecutors.
The assault charge carries a maximum six-year prison term. The original assault charge filed by prosecutors contains an allegation of burglary, which ratchets up its punishment to a mandatory life term.
Although Medvigy could have ordered Hernandez Gonzalez to register as a sex offender under the burglary conviction, it isn't required and would be unusual. Lifetime registration is mandatory with the assault charge.
Also, the potential long-term legal consequences of a burglary conviction and an attempted sexual assault conviction differ significantly.
If Hernandez Gonzalez is ever identified as a "sexually violent predator" under legal guidelines, any history of sex-based crimes would become significant a burglary charge may not. Medvigy said it was clear Hernandez Gonzalez had a sexual intent.
"Apparently, the judge now recognizes his mistake in taking the sexual assault out of the equation," Spencer R. Brady, chief deputy district attorney, said in an e-mailed statement. "However, we believe that the judge should not have set aside the jury's original verdict. We are reviewing the judge's latest ruling with the attorney general."
Hernandez Gonzalez was convicted of assault with intent to commit rape. No sexual assault actually occurred.
In dismissing the initial attempted sexual assault charge, Medvigy compared its life sentence with that of completed rape outside the home, which has a maximum term of eight years in prison.