Jose Avina, This is Your Life
Though 14 years old during his sex-crime spree, rapist kid gets adult punishment
At Orange County’s central courthouse on June 13, I rode an elevator alone to the top floor, walked down a silent, empty corridor to the last courtroom and learned the fate of a defendant who four years ago kidnapped, robbed and raped young boys near Disneyland. Jose Ignacio Avina wasn’t an adult when he committed his bizarre Anaheim crime spree. He was 14 years old. Now, at 18, he was set to learn his punishment.
Take note, parents: District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has made it clear that his office will prosecute junior-high-school students as adults. And Rackauckas isn’t alone. The drumbeat nationwide to continually lower the age of adult accountability for minors is as real as efforts to continually toughen punishment.
Inside the courtroom sat the soft-faced Avina, wearing an orange jail jump suit, restrained in handcuffs and under the watchful gaze of deputies. I hadn’t been convinced during last year’s trial that he fully appreciated the dire consequences of his situation. Now, following his convictions, he looked frightened. When one of his victims told Superior Court Judge James A. Stotler that he’d wanted to kill himself after being forcibly sodomized at the age of 12, Avina stiffened in his seat.
“I was a victim of his sexual assault,” the boy said slowly, pausing repeatedly to search for words.
“Just take a deep breath,” Stotler said.
“What he did to me . . . ,” the boy said, unable to finish.
“I know this is hard,” the judge said.
“What he did to me was so disgusting. I wonder why he would do that to me.”
Avina remained mute, staring ahead. He left any hint of an explanation for his crimes to Dolores Yost, his public defender. Tearfully, she provided context that softened her client’s image as a monster. An adult sexually molested him in the woods when he was a child in Mexico. He’d been called derogatory names by classmates. His father viciously beat him for interfering with his attempts to rape and assault his mother. He often assisted a disabled neighbor. He taught siblings how to ride a bicycle. He earned a GED while in custody. An expert psychiatric analysis of his life concluded that Avina had lived in “horrible” conditions with no meaningful parental supervision and is, to be delicate, mentally challenged.
As a veteran court watcher, I often find it easy to detect when a defense lawyer truly cares about a client. Yost is more than a lawyer to Avina. She’s his friend, and she used Avina’s life story to argue that he should get probation or, at worst, a six-year stint at a California Youth Authority (CYA) facility. Yost told the judge, “He has demonstrated kindness.”
Now, Orange County isn’t home to touchy-feely judges. Some are openly callous, but Stotler isn’t one of them. He’s painstakingly thoughtful. During a 90-minute period, he acknowledged in excruciating detail the “ups and downs” in Avina’s life, which included numerous trips to juvenile hall, where he frequently stole, cursed and exposed his genitals to peers. The increasingly violent nature of Avina’s crimes worried Stotler most. The kid had gone from school fights to grand-theft auto, then to rape in a two-year period. The judge rejected Yost’s plea for probation or CYA. For the 11 felony convictions won by Deputy District Attorney Kal Kaliban in the 2007 trial, the judge—relying on sentencing guidelines—gave the kid four consecutive life sentences.
“You just got hit in the head with a cement block,” Stotler told Avina. “I really didn’t want to do this to you, but there are repercussions of that conduct on the [four] victims, who’ll suffer for years to come.”
Avina, whose mother was murdered while he was in custody, quietly cried.
Stotler said, “I’m 100 percent sure you are sorry for what you’ve done.”
Yost hugged Avina.
“I wish you the best of times in the future,” Stotler added before quickly leaving the bench.
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Avina dipped his head to his left and wiped tears on his jump-suit-covered shoulder. Yost hugged him tightly again and whispered in his ear. He’ll be 82 years old when he gets his first shot at parole in 2072.
For a teenager, the punishment is severe. Earlier that day in the same courthouse, for example, Samantha Elizabeth Rothwell was sentenced for a vicious knife murder she committed at 20. She’ll be eligible for parole from prison in 16 years. (See my June 18 Citizen of the Week post on our staff blog, Navel Gazing.)
Kaliban says Avina’s punishment is appropriate. “This guy is dangerous,” the veteran sex-crimes prosecutor told me. But Yost isn’t satisfied. She told Stotler she plans to file an appeal with a higher court.