Why The Criminal Case Against La Luz Del Mundo's Leader Got Dismissed (For Now)
A California appeals court this week dismissed the criminal case against the leader of the Mexico-based religious group known as La Luz Del Mundo, or the Light of the World Church.
Naason Joaquin Garcia was arrested in L.A. this past summer and charged with child sexual abuse and human trafficking. After the court determined he was a flight risk, Garcia's been held without bail in a downtown Los Angeles jail cell since.
The appellate court dismissed Garcia's criminal case Tuesday on a procedural basis.
Church officials issued a statement welcoming the dismissal, with Garcia's lead attorney Alan Jackson calling it "a good day for justice."
Jackson accused prosecutors of violating his client's "due process by locking him up without bail."
Garcias has denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty, all along.
The court of appeal did not rule on Garcia's guilt or innocence. Nor did the court find in dismissing the case against Garcia that prosecutors did not have enough evidence against him to prosecute the case against him. The appellate court's dismissal isn't final for 30 days, so he'll continue to be held in jail until then. Prosecutors also have the option to re-file charges against him, they said.
And now an already complicated case is further complicated.
Who is Naason Joaquin Garcia?
Naason Joaquin Garcia is the international leader of a Pentecostal Christian religious group known as La Luz Del Mundo, or The Light of the World church. It was started by Garcia's grandfather in Guadalajara almost a century ago, and has millions of members around the world. There are dozens of temples in Southern California, where Garcia and his family have lived in recent years.
Church members know Garcia as "the apostle of Jesus Christ," a title held by Garcia's father and grandfather before him. Garcia began leading the church six years ago, after his father died.
One of the distinguishing features of this faith group is its focus on a central figure: the apostle. Garcia's followers believe he is God's only living messenger on earth, and you'll find Naason Joaquin Garcia's photos and his initials prominently displayed in La Luz Del Mundo temples, events and homes.
Garcia was accused of using that power to manipulate and cooerce young girls into sex acts. After three girls and one woman in L.A. County came forward to the California Attorney General's office with allegations, Garcia was charged with one count of lewd acts upon a child, two counts of conspiracy to commit human trafficking and three counts of forcible rape. He denied the charges and pleaded not guilty.
Why, exactly, were the charges dismissed? What was the procedural basis?
The appeals court simply said that because a preliminary hearing was not held for Garcia within the right amount of time, and he was incarcerated while he waited, the case is dismissed. This is a due process issue, concerning the defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial. The law requires that a preliminary hearing be held within 10 court days of the arraignment.
In this case, something a bit strange happened.
Garcia was arrested in June at LAX and charged with a series of felonies. At his arraignment in June, Garcia waived his right to a speedy preliminary hearing. He was denied bail and booked into Twin Towers in downtown L.A.
But then, the next month, in July, prosecutors added new a few new child pornography charges against Garcia, and had to re-charge and re-arraign him. At that arraignment, Garcia did not waive his right to a speedy trial, like he did the first time.
Instead of holding a preliminary hearing within 10 days, the L.A. Superior Court issued a series of continuances.
In September, Garcia's legal team petitioned the trial court to dismiss the case in the L.A. County Superior Court and get him released from custody. That court denied his motion.
Garcia's lawyers then petitioned that denial to the court of appeal, which ruled that the case should have been dismissed because Garcia had not explicitly waived his right to a speedy trial after those second set of charges were added to the complaint against him.
Prosecutors and the trial court thought they had the time waiver on Garcia, from his first arraignment, but they did not, according to the court of appeal
Why were there delays in the case?
Part of the reason for the delay in prosecution, the defense argued, was that the California Attorney General's office, which is prosecuting the case, did not deliver all their evidence over to the defense team on time, according to the decision. At a hearing last fall, deputy attorney general Diana Callaghan said that processing some of the evidence to turn over to the defense team for discovery was a lengthy process, because the evidence included "child pornography as well as the names and locations of minor victims."
Tuesday's appellate ruling doesn't mean there's anything wrong with that evidence, the Attorney General's office said. It simply means that prosecutors and Garcia's defense team had two different understandings about the agreed-upon timeline of the trial, according to accounts in the court records, and the appeals court sided with Garcia's lawyers on this time waiver issue.
So what happens next? What are the options for the prosecutors in this case?
The California Attorney General's office did not want to comment other than to say that their office is reviewing the court of appeal's decision.
The California Department of Justice could decide to contest the appellate decision to the State Supreme Court, or could simply re-file these charges within 30 days, keep Garcia in custody, and try again to bring the case to trial.
Has Garcia faced allegations like this before, in his time as the leader of La Luz Del Mundo?
These were the first criminal charges brought against Garcia. His father, Samuel Joaquin Flores, led the church from 1964 until 2014, when ge died. Flores was also the subject of sexual abuse allegations but never faced criminal charges.
In February, a former member of La Luz Del Mundo in Los Angeles named Sochil Martin filed a federal civil lawsuit against the church, and against Garcia. Martin claims she was groomed to be a child sex slave for Garcia's father Samuel, and that she was also sexually abused by Garcia.
When that suit was filed, a church leader called it a "ploy for attention" and evidence of "hatred being manifested towards the Church" because it came during the organization's "biggest and holiest event."
Martin's attorney, Deborah Malgrave, said yesterday's decision was tough for survivors like her client.
"People who are trying to get the strength, like Sochil, to stand up and identify their accusers and talk about the wrongs that have been done to them, and then something like this happens," Mallgrave said. "Despite all their strength, someone is still able to get out of jail based on these technicalities. We are very hopeful that with our civil lawsuit, we still can stand up for those survivors and show them that justice can still be done."
What is the church saying about the news?
Church officials within the La Luz Del Mundo organization did not want to speak on the record, but they put out a statement to members about the latest legal developments in court, and asking them to all pray and thank God at 8 p.m. local time Tuesday.
Garcia's lead attorney Alan Jackson said:
'In their zeal to secure a conviction at any cost, the Attorney General has sought to strip Mr. Garcia of his freedom without due process by locking him up without bail on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations by unnamed accusers and by denying him his day in court."
Garcia has remained the head of the church throughout this whole process. Church officials and active members have professed his innocence and support their "Apostle," even holding events in his honor.
During the group's annual U.S. Holy Supper ritual in February, spokesman Jack Freeman said Garcia's legal troubles could even be positive for the growth of the religious group.
"What it's doing is bringing us to light to people who never would have known who we are," said Freeman. "And people who look into it with an open mind are going to find an open church that's involved in the community, is very loving, very caring, where families mean a lot. And that all starts with the leader of the church, the apostle Naason Joaquin Garcia."