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GUILT BY ASSOCIATION OVERTURNS PRIEST’S SEX CONVICTION In her zeal to nail Catholic priest Fernando Lopez for allegedly sexually assaulting three young, male parishioners, Los Angeles County prosecutor Darci Johnson went too far during closing arguments. And possibly put her bar license in peril. A state appellate court reversed Lopez’s conviction last week, holding 2-1 that Johnson had improperly branded the defendant with guilt by association by invoking the molestation scandals plaguing the Catholic Church in recent years. “A Catholic priest, like any other defendant, is entitled to a fair trial,” Justice Robert Mallano wrote Thursday for L.A.’s Second District Court of Appeal. “Instead, [Lopez] here got a trial in which the prosecutor in argument appealed to the jury’s passions, prejudices and sympathy; alluded to facts outside the record; and expressed her personal belief in defendant’s guilt.” Mallano ruled Johnson had committed prosecutorial misconduct, and ordered the court’s clerk to send a copy of the opinion to the State Bar. That’s generally a sign that some sort of punishment is warranted. Justice Miriam Vogel concurred. But Justice Frances Rothschild dissented, saying that while she agreed with much of the majority’s criticism, “no single inappropriate comment standing alone or all of them viewed together warrant reversal of defendant’s conviction.” Lopez, a 43-year-old Colombian native reportedly on a temporary assignment at L.A.’s St. Thomas the Apostle Parish from his home diocese in Rome, was convicted of committing lewd acts, sexual battery and child molestation. His alleged male victims were mostly low-income Hispanics ranging in age from 13 to 20. In reversing the conviction, the appeals court noted that Johnson improperly referenced “horrendous crimes” by Catholic priests. That was “not an allusion to some abstract or historical figure,” Mallano wrote. “Rather, given the almost daily news accounts of the scandal in the Catholic Church over pedophile priests, the jury was certain to think the prosecutor was referring to this scandal and suggesting that defendant played a part in it.” He also chastised Johnson for asking jurors to “stand in the shoes of the victim witnesses” to relate to questions about the crime scene and for stating outright that she believed Lopez was guilty. “Three minors testified against defendant, who denied the charges,” Mallano wrote. “There were no independent witnesses or any confession or material admissions. Simply counting three against one will not do.” Simi Valley solo practitioner Mark Lenenberg, who represented Lopez on appeal, said he was surprised by the decision. “I raise prosecutorial misconduct a lot,” he said Friday, “and the court generally doesn’t agree with me.” Johnson didn’t return a call seeking comment. The ruling is People v. Lopez, 06 C.D.O.S. 3117. � Mike McKee CLEAN JUSTICE Last year saw mixed results for judges facing disciplinary actions, according to the Commission on Judicial Performance’s recently released annual report. Complaints of judicial misconduct dropped by 15 percent in 2005, and no judges were tossed off the bench. (The commission ordered the removal of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kevin Ross, but his appeal is still pending before the state Supreme Court). But 2005 did bring more public censures and four resignations or retirements in the wake of disciplinary hearings. Last year marked the 10-year anniversary of changes, mandated by voters in 1994, that were designed to make the commission’s workings more transparent. “At the close of a decade, the consensus is that the commission changed for the better,” commission chairman Marshall Grossman said in this year’s report. “The secrecy that surrounded the commission has been replaced with greater scrutiny.” The commission fielded 965 complaints naming 748 different judges last year. Staff dismissed 876 of those complaints after an initial review. They closed another 51 cases without discipline. Commissioners in November ordered Ross removed from office for willful misconduct involving, among other things, working as a private arbitrator in a television reality-show pilot. The panel in March 2005 also censured Yuba County Superior Court Judge David Wasilenko after finding that he gave preferential treatment to friends and family in his courtroom. Wasilenko retired in January 2005. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge William Danser was also censured last June for improperly fixing tickets and doling out light sentences to acquaintances. Danser left the bench in 2004 and has appealed the commission’s decision. � Cheryl Miller

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