What Went Wrong With the Naason Joaquin Garcia Prosecution
by Samuel Dordulian, Esq.
Recently, the California Court of Appeals ruled that the charges against self-proclaimed “apostle” of La Luz del Mundo megachurch are to be dismissed on procedural grounds. Mr. Naason Joaquin Garcia, who took over for his father in December 2014 as leader of the church of 5 million followers, was accused of child rape and human trafficking. An additional charge of child pornography was later added. So what went wrong?
Essentially, the Appeals Court ruled that the lower court and the attorney general’s office violated Mr. Garcia’s speedy trial due process rights by not providing him with a timely preliminary hearing. Initially, the attorney general’s office charged Mr. Garcia with a criminal complaint. At his arraignment on that complaint, he pled not guilty and waived his right to a preliminary hearing within 10 days. Subsequent to that first complaint, the attorney general’s office then filed an amended complaint adding in charges of child pornography. At his second arraignment on the amended complaint, Mr. Garcia again plead not guilty, but this time, did not waive his right to a timely preliminary hearing.
Since he was in custody, that meant Garcia was entitled to have a preliminary hearing before a judge to determine if the prosecution had enough evidence to hold him in custody until his trial. However, despite the fact that he did not waive his right to a speedy preliminary hearing, one was not held within the required 10 days of the second arraignment. Days before the preliminary hearing was to begin, the defense complained that they had not been provided with the evidence that was in the custody of the prosecutor.
A hearing was held and the court ordered the prosecutor to turn over the forensic evidence. On the day of the scheduled preliminary hearing, the defense counsel argued he could not effectively announce ready for the preliminary hearing since the evidence was still not turned over by the prosecution. As a result, the court continued the preliminary hearing to a later date to allow the prosecution more time to make the evidence available to the defendants. Unfortunately, this continued date was outside of the 10 days from the date of his second arraignment.
Mr. Garcia’s attorney then brought a motion to dismiss before the court. The court denied the motion to dismiss arguing that once a defendant waives his due process rights to a speedy preliminary hearing (which Mr. Garcia did initially), then his later invocation of that right isn’t binding. But the Court of Appeals disagreed.
The appeals court ruled that once Mr. Garcia was arraigned on the second amended complaint that added additional charges (i.e. child pornography), he was required to be provided a preliminary hearing within 10 days unless he agreed to waive that right. Since Mr. Garcia did not waive his rights at this second arraignment, the court ruled that failing to provide him with that preliminary hearing within the required 10 days meant that all charges had to be dismissed. The appellate court made no finding or ruling on the merits of the actual charges. The dismissal was entirely based on procedural grounds.
That means the charges were essentially dismissed on a technicality related solely to procedure (in this case a failure to provide a preliminary hearing within 10 days). The charges were dropped in light of that procedural misstep on the part of the prosecution. However, the decision by the appeals court never considered whether or not the specific charges of child rape, human trafficking, and child pornography against Garcia had merit. It’s important not to confuse the dismissal as a decision related to the legitimacy of those charges. In fact, those charges were not even considered in this ruling, which means that if they were legitimate before the procedural oversight, they remain legitimate today.
So, now what happens? First, the appellate court’s ruling isn’t valid until the passage of 30 days. For now, Garcia remains in custody and the prosecution can determine how they will proceed next. The prosecutors essentially have 3 options:
First, they can appeal the decision of the California Court of Appeal to the California Supreme Court. However, there is no guarantee that the California Supreme Court would be willing to take such an emergency appeal before the defendant has to be released. Considering the delay in the courts caused by Covid-19, this is actually an unlikely choice.
Second, the prosecutor can choose to refile the charges on the day the defendant is scheduled to be released. If they choose this option, Garcia will not actually be released, but rather rearraigned on the new complaint. This is actually an option that all prosecutors have under Penal Code Section 1387. The bar against double jeopardy does not attach until trial has begun. But if charges are dismissed before trial commences, the prosecutor gets another bite at the apple under Penal Code Section 1387 without having to make any showing or justification before the court. That right under Penal Code Section 1387 affords the prosecutor two chances to bring a defendant to trial. After two dismissals, however, the charges can only be brought for a third time, and only under very limited circumstances. Finally, the third and only other remaining option for the attorney general would be to release the defendant and not refile the charges, effectively ending the criminal case.
Having been in the trenches for many years as a former Deputy District Attorney, refiling charges under Penal Code section 1387 is not uncommon. It happens more often than people realize, and I suspect that will be the path chosen by the attorney general — attempting to reinstate the case with a refiling before the defendant must be released under the order of the California Appellate Court.
One important fact to keep in mind is that the dismissal by the California Appellate Court has absolutely no effect on any pending or new civil claims made by survivors of Mr. Garcia. The current existing federal civil lawsuit filed by one of the victims is still proceeding, and any new civil claims from any new victims that may come forward may also proceed. The attorney general in this case has stated that it is confident new victims will emerge against Mr. Garcia. In prosecuting some of Los Angeles County’s most high-profile sex crime cases, I’ve come across defendants like Garcia many times. I concur with the attorney general in the notion that Garcia, with 29 counts of felony charges ranging from human trafficking to forcible rape of a minor being dropped, has likely abused several individuals who have yet to come forward.
If this proves true, those survivors have the benefit of potentially being involved in not only the anticipated new refiling of criminal charges against Mr. Garcia. Survivors also have the option of filing civil claims against him for the same wrongs. Under California’s new AB-218 law, any survivor who suffered abuse by Garcia (or any La Luz del Mundo representative) may be eligible for triple the damages levied in a ruling or settlement, if evidence of a cover up exists. And under AB-218’s three-year “lookback window,” any survivor, regardless of when the abuse occurred, is eligible to file a claim before the window closes on January 1, 2024.
It’s always important for survivors to come forward to ensure justice is served against their abusers. My hope is that, given how closely Garcia has come to evading justice on a technicality, all survivors will be motivated to come forward immediately.
Samuel Dordulian is the managing partner of Dordulian Law Group, a Los Angeles-area firm specializing in sex crimes, workers’ compensation, and personal injury cases. As a Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles County, Mr. Dordulian worked as a sex crimes prosecutor, successfully obtaining life sentences against some of the state’s most heinous criminals. Since founding his firm in 2008, Dordulian has successfully recovered over $100 million for his clients.
www.dlawgroup.com Free Consultations: 800–880–7777