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The California Supreme Court ruled this week that a defendant convicted of sexual conduct with a child who has not yet reached his or her 11th birthday can be sentenced to life in prison.
The court's opinion clarified California Penal Code 288.7, which allows a court to sentence a defendant to a life term in prison for sexual conduct "with a child who is 10 years of age or younger."
Defendant Michael David Cornett challenged the interpretation of the statute after his conviction for sexually-molesting his two stepdaughters. Cornett was convicted of seven felony sex offenses in violation of Penal Code 288.7. He argued on appeal that one of his convictions must be reversed and the count dismissed because one of his victims was 10 years and approximately 11 months old at the time of the molestation, therefore she was not “10 years of age or younger” within the meaning of section 288.7.
An appellate court agreed with Cornett that victims who have passed their 10th birthdays fall outside the scope of section 288.7.
The penalty for oral copulation or sexual penetration with a child who is 10 or younger is 15 years to life. The penalty for the same acts with a child older than 10, but younger than 14, is only 3 to 8 years, as long as no force was involved, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.
The California Supreme Court looked to the legislative intent behind the statute, and concluded that Penal Code section 288.7 should be interpreted to apply to crimes involving children who have not yet turned 11.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye explained, “The general scope and purpose of the [Sex Offender Punishment, Control, and Containment Act of 2006] make it more likely that the Legislature intended the ordinary and common meaning of the phrase “10 years of age” and not the restrictive meaning asserted by defendant. The Act expressly states that its purpose is to increase the protection of the community from victimization by sexual offenders, and numerous provisions of the Act focus specifically on protecting children by creating new criminal offenses and increasing existing penalties for criminal conduct that victimizes them.”
While the ruling will not affect Cornett’s sentence — he was not given an additional term for his challenged conviction because he was sentenced to 160 years to life in prison for other sex crimes — it will affect other cases involving victims between 10- and 11-years-old, reports the Chronicle.