10:41 PM PDT on Wednesday, May 26, 2010

By RICHARD K. DE ATLEY
The Press-Enterprise

With his opponent Paul Zellerbach in the same room, Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco used a town-hall meeting Wednesday to bring home a centerpiece of his campaign against the judge — that Zellerbach goes easy on sexual predators.

The claims, Zellerbach said, are misleading.

The two men had their first campaign confrontation in front of an audience as guests of the San Gorgonio Pass Republican Women in Banning. At four previous public candidate forums in which both were invited, Pacheco did not attend.

The event was not a debate. The town hall format had both men make speeches and then take questions from the audience. Sheriff Stan Sniff also addressed the group, but his opponent, Frank Robles, had sent word he was unable to attend.

Zellerbach, a Riverside County prosecutor for 22 years, is a Superior Court judge on unpaid leave of absence to run against Pacheco, who is seeking a second term. Both are Republicans in the nonpartisan race.

In campaign mailers and in speeches, Pacheco claims Zellerbach:

Dismissed a case against Anthony Francis Clarke, formerly of Corona, who was charged with molesting a 3-year-old girl more than 100 times.

Sentenced to 16 months a man who pleaded guilty to 27 counts of unlawful intercourse with a minor and annoying or molesting a child.

Struck down a sex-offender enhancement that would have let Zellerbach sentence convicted sex offender Robert Edward Beck to life in prison.

One mailer calls Zellerbach “Judge Marshmallow.”

“He’s been a terrible judge,” Pacheco said of Zellerbach after the meeting.

After first describing the two sentencing cases, Pacheco told the audience:

“Those two examples are not the worst examples, there is yet another one, in People vs. Clarke,” Pacheco said.

“The defendant in that case molested a 3-year-old girl over 100 times. He then fled to New Mexico, and while he was in New Mexico we were looking for him, but the defense attorney, when we finally caught him, said we didn’t find him soon enough. My opponent… dismissed the entire case.”

Court records, Zellerbach said in an interview afterward, give a different story.

The claims against Clarke came to light in 1998, but the district attorney’s office did not file charges against him until 2000. And the actual incidents were alleged to have taken place between November 1994 and June 1995.

Clarke had moved to New Mexico but his attorney said he was not in hiding, could have been found by routine investigation and was stopped twice by police in that state after the arrest warrants were issued. Clarke was arrested in 2006.

“I heard the case over 11 years after the crime occurred,” Zellerbach said. “The victim was then 15. She remembered nothing about the incident, she didn’t remember the defendant at all. … The DA had no justification or legal excuse why the case had been delayed so long,” he said.

Zellerbach’s dismissal was upheld by the 4th District Court of Appeal in Riverside, court records show.

In the 16-month sentencing from 2001, Zellerbach said that came after prosecutors made a plea bargain with the defendant, Hector Abraham Peraza.

Peraza could have been placed on probation or sentenced to a maximum of two years.

Pacheco claimed Zellerbach was leaning toward probation until a victim’s mother showed up to testify at sentencing. .

Zellerbach said he recalled the defense arguing for probation, the prosecutor arguing for 24 months, and him deciding to split the difference.

“It makes it look like I picked a number out of the blue,” Zellerbach said of Pacheco’s account. “When under the terms of the plea agreement the most I could have given him was eight months more than I did.”

In the Beck case, in which Zellerbach struck a jury’s finding that could have brought a life sentence, the judge said he did it.

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