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California: Sex Offender’s Civil Commitment Overturned for Lack of Evidence

On October 24, 2016, a division of the California Court of Appeal reversed a ruling by a Los Angeles County judge that found a thrice-convicted sex offender was a “Sexually Violent Predator” who should be indefinitely committed to a state hospital. The appellate court held there was a lack of evidence to support that finding.

On appeal from his civil commitment under California’s Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA), John Wright argued that his diagnosis of “hebephilia” was fundamentally flawed and insufficient to justify the trial court’s judgment. Hebephilia is a controversial diagnosis involving sexual interest in pubescent-age children. “It’s in that in-between area from pre-pubescent to post-pubescent,” according to the appellate opinion. [See: PLN, Aug. 2012, p.1].

Wright was originally convicted in 1996 – at age 26 – of a sex offense involving a 14-year-old girl. In 2001, he was convicted of two more sex offenses involving girls aged 14 and 15. And four years later Wright was convicted of engaging in oral sex with an underage female.

Following his 2005 conviction, the state filed a motion to commit Wright under the SVPA. Wright elected to have a bench trial, at which a state’s expert, Dr. Michael Musacco, testified that he suffered from hebephilia. However, Musacco admitted that hebephilia is a rare diagnosis not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and that without seeing the physical characteristics and sexual development of Wright’s victims, he had to hypothesize based solely on their ages whether Wright’s behavior fit the definition of hebephilia.

Wright’s expert, Dr. Amy Phoenix, testified that he did not suffer from a mental disorder, and that it was impossible to determine whether his victims were at the stage of development to conclude he fit the definition of hebephilia. Regardless, the trial court held Wright was an SVP, noting his “consistent pattern” of targeting young girls.

The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that “speculation is not evidence and cannot support a conviction or, as here, an involuntary commitment.”

Without any evidence regarding the physical development of Wright’s victims, and recognizing that some 14-year-olds look older than they are, and some younger, it was impossible to make a hebephilia diagnosis based solely on the chronological ages of the victims.

Dr. Musacco’s “diagnosis was based on pure speculation and conjecture about the victims’ physical and sexual development [and] did not possess any evidentiary value,” the appellate court concluded.

The judgment of the trial court committing Wright to an indeterminate term as an SVP was therefore reversed “for lack of substantial evidence.” See: People v. Wright, 4 Cal.App.5th 537, 208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 686 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2016). 

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Related legal case

People v. Wright