SANTA ANA, Calif. — A convicted child molester who was one of the first sex offenders targeted by Megan's Law won a ruling Friday for a new trial to decide if he should be released from a California mental hospital where he's been held for more than a decade.
Orange County Superior Court Judge W. Michael Hayes said 72-year-old Sidney Landau, who was designated a sexually violent predator under a little-known state law, had done as much as he could to show he deserved another trial.
Landau's public defender, Sara Ross, welcomed the decision.
"Mr. Landau has served all the time required of him and he deserves an opportunity to be released," she said after the hearing that was not attended by Landau, who is housed at Coalinga State Hospital.
Prosecutors argued that holding another trial would be a waste of time and resources. They cited a 2011 evaluation and claimed nothing had changed since Landau was declared a sexually violent predator.
"He's the same man he was four years ago," Dan Wagner, assistant district attorney for Orange County, said after the hearing.
The trial is set for Oct. 22.
Landau was convicted of molesting two boys in the 1980s and was paroled in 1996. His case became famous when police publicized his name and address under a new notification law and he was chased from multiple addresses by angry neighbors.
He eventually was returned to prison for parole violations then held at the mental hospital since 2000.
He petitioned for release in 2010 after a state doctor found he could be freed under supervision with no risk to the public because of his advancing age.
Experts who study California's statutes on sexually violent predators, however, say Landau faces an extremely difficult fight to regain his freedom.
Under the law enacted in 1996, offenders who are convicted of a sexually violent offense, have at least one victim, and are diagnosed with a mental disorder that makes them likely to reoffend can be committed to a mental hospital for treatment after a rigorous legal process that involves findings by doctors, a judge and a jury.
Inmates convicted of sex offenses are evaluated by prison staff starting six months before their scheduled release and those who are flagged are forwarded to the state's Department of Mental Health for further assessment.
There are currently 533 people statewide who have been formally committed to a mental hospital for an indeterminate time because they are sexually violent predators, and another 321 housed at Coalinga State Hospital awaiting a determination, said Deborah Ireland, a spokeswoman for the hospital about 200 miles north of Los Angeles.
Ninety-one sexually violent predators have been released since 2006, Ireland said, but it wasn't immediately clear whether those individuals gained release through a jury trial or other avenue.
Offenders are re-evaluated each year and can request a hearing to determine if there is cause to challenge the findings.
At each step, convicted molesters such as Landau face significant hurdles because the district attorneys and judges handling their cases are elected officials. If a case does get in front of a jury, it's unlikely convicted molesters will find much sympathy, said David Ramirez, a defense attorney who specializes in representing sexually violent predators.
"If he goes out in the community and kills and rapes an 8-year-old girl walking to school, there's going to be consequences," Ramirez said. "And at trial, the prosecutors usually go over it piece by piece. How did you pick your victim? Was it her hair color? Her height? The jury is obviously repulsed by that. It's an ugly process."
Landau – convicted in 1982 and 1988 for molesting two boys under age 14 – was one of the first sex offenders to be targeted in California by Megan's Law. The law derives its name from Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was sexually assaulted and killed in 1994 by a previously convicted sex offender. The crime led to the creation of state and federal Megan's Laws that allow police to provide notification when high-risk sex offenders move into neighborhoods.
Landau later sued Placentia police in federal court, saying they violated his privacy rights, but he lost and went on to serve more time on three parole violations.
On the eve of his final release in 2000, prison officials referred him for evaluation as a sexually violent predator.
Landau was housed for six years in the state mental hospital while he awaited a jury trial to determine whether he should be civilly committed. Two trials resulted in hung juries but Landau was committed for an indefinite period after a third jury found him to be a sexually violent predator.
In 2010, a state psychologist concluded he could be safely released under supervision because of his age and Landau petitioned for his release.
The director of the Coalinga State Hospital, however, disagreed with the doctor's assessment and the judge rejected Landau's request as frivolous, according to court papers.
Landau appealed and last year, a state appellate court found the judge erred.