MODESTO — When members of a jury pool filed into Judge Marie Silveira's courtroom two weeks ago, they probably expected the typical criminal case: assault, sexual assault, drug trafficking, auto or grand theft, or maybe even murder.
So, among the dozen and alternates chosen to serve, how many ever had heard of a civil commitment case?
None. Nada. Zero.
Such cases are pretty rare so rare that prosecutor Beth O'Hara Owen had handled only one other. It was the third for public defender Peter Stavrianoudakis, and he represented the same client John McKinley Wilson in two of them, including this one.
The name of the procedure a civil commitment is a bit misleading because it implies a civil court proceeding when, in fact, it is not, even though it is covered by the California Welfare and Institutions Code, not the state Penal Code.
The jury's outcome must be based on the same "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard used in criminal trials, not the lesser "preponder- ance of evidence" used in civil cases.
Nor was it the jury's job to determine guilt or innocence. That was done long ago. Wilson, 57, was convicted of raping a 77-year-old woman while holding a knife to her husband's throat in 1975. After being paroled, he raped a woman he'd taken hostage while robbing in 1980.
Paroled again, he failed to report to his parole officer. Eventually, he ended up back in the system, in the mental health wing of Coalinga State Hospital.
The jurors needed to consider whether the prosecution proved four elements to determine whether he should be returned to the hospital until further notice:
Did he have prior convictions against one or more victims?
Does he currently have a diagnosable mental disorder that predisposes him to commit criminal sex acts?
Would he be likely to reoffend as a result of that disorder?
And should the person be committed (or recommitted)?
The first element was a matter of record. The second element gave the jurors the most to ponder. Five expert witnesses testified. Three said he suffered from post- traumatic stress disorder not paraphilia, a mental illness associated with sexually violent predators (SVPs). Two testified that he does have paraphilia.
"A complete battle of experts," Stavrianoudakis called it. "The trick is, are there current manifestations of the disease? There was no current behavior, no current acts, no current anything to support current acts of the disease. The only acts were from when he was 19 and 25 years old. He's 57 now. Nothing since he was 25."
Of course, Wilson spent much of the past three decades in custody. Parole violations not sex crimes sent him back.
"Who do we believe?" juror No. 2 said after Tuesday's verdict.
They found the two experts who testified against Wilson to be more credible, the jurors said. Consequently, they found he likely would reoffend if set free.
So Wilson returns to Coalinga. Under Jessica's law of 2006, he can be kept there for an indeterminate amount of time. He will be evaluated annually. To get out, he would need to convince the Department of Mental Health he no longer poses a threat to the community. In Wilson's case, that will be a tough sell. He's refused to participate in the state's Sex Offender Commitment Program, which means he hasn't learned much.
The same can't be said for the jurors, though. In just a couple of weeks, they learned all they'll ever want to know about civil commitments.
"I'd never imagined it," Juror No. 1 said. "It was surprising."
No. 10 found the descriptions of Wilson's acts shocking, as well as his testimony about being raised by a brutally abusive father.
"The language they used, the crimes, what he did," she said. "But none of that mattered. Only the SVP predisposition."