In January of this year, a man by the name of Jorge Perez was driving under the influence of alcohol when he struck 20-year-old Cal State Fullerton student Jessica Weber as she was walking with her friends back to the dorms.
Perez drove through a red light and hit Weber with his left-side mirror. Perez then drove away before law enforcement arrived at the scene. Witnesses helped police track down Perez where he was later arrested. Meanwhile, Weber was left with broken bones in her back, hip, pelvis, and left arm.
Bonnie Masters-Weber, Jessica’s mother, had told the Orange County Deputy District Attorney who was assigned to the case that she wanted to be present for every hearing. Masters-Weber, who lives in Sacramento, was told by the prosecutor that there was no need for her to make the long trip for every hearing, but that they would inform her of when sentencing would take place.
Under the California Victim’s Bill or Rights Act of 2008, commonly known as Marcy’s Law, victims of crimes and their families have the right to be present during the criminal proceedings of the defendant and give a statement at the defendant’s sentencing.
According to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, the prosecutor on the case “inadvertently failed to notify” Masters-Weber that Perez had accepted a two-year deal with the judge.
Unbeknownst to Masters-Weber, Perez was sentenced in October. Although the DA had been pushing for four years and four months in prison, Perez accepted an offer from the judge of two years in prison.
When the failure to notify the Weber family was discovered, prosecutors filed a motion for reconsideration of Perez’s sentence and Judge Scott Steiner ordered a hearing.
“The DA failed us,” said Masters-Weber at the hearing which took place last month. “It refused to acknowledge their violation of our constitutional rights.”
Judge Steiner agreed that the Weber and her family’s rights were violated and vacated Perez’s guilty plea.
“I am making the determination that it is proper in the interest of justice to vacate the guilty plea that was entered in this case,” ruled Judge Steiner.
Perez’s attorney disagreed with the ruling arguing that the court had considered letters of impact before it offered the two-year sentence to Perez.
With the guilty plea vacated, Perez’s initial not guilty plea effectively gets reinstated and Perez’s defense can continue to fight for a better offer or take the case to trial. Given the statements provided by Weber and her family, Judge Steiner told Perez’s defense that the new court offer would be four years and four months, the same as what the DA’s office had pushed for originally.
Susan Schroeder, the Orange County District Attorney’s chief of staff issued the following statement:
"The Orange County District Attorney’s Office (OCDA) is a leading enforcer of Marsy’s Law rights and takes its advocacy for crime victims seriously. In the case of People V. Jorge Perez, the OCDA was vigorously pursuing a sentence of 4 years and 4 months on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury, driving with blood alcohol .08% or more causing bodily injury, hit and run with injury, driving on a suspended/revoked license, and a sentencing enhancement for inflicting great bodily injury."
"Early on in the case, the victim’s mother, Ms. Masters, had been working with a deputy district attorney, who is no longer with the office, who suggested she not make the long drive from northern California for each and every proceeding and that our office would notify her prior to the sentencing. A note was made in the file to contact her when the time came. The judge offered the defendant a two-year sentence, an offer that was not supported by the OCDA. The OCDA gave Ms. Masters’ prepared victim impact statement to the judge who considered it at the sentencing hearing on October 17, but inadvertently failed to notify Ms. Masters to be present."
"Once the error was discovered and prior to being contacted by the media, the OCDA initiated the process of getting the case put back on the calendar to remedy the situation so Ms. Masters may address the court personally. OCDA prosecutors strive for perfection and in this case, we fell short. We certainly understand why Ms. Masters is upset and we are working to correct our error."
In no way do I condone what Perez did and I want to be perfectly clear when say that Weber and her family should have had the opportunity to address the court. While it may be difficult for some to sympathize with, I’d be remiss if I did not point out another less-obvious inequity:
The prosecution fouls up and, as a result, gets exactly what they originally wanted; a more severe sentence.
Perez is due back in court later this month for a pretrial hearing.