Sylvia Vasquez on the stand.
Paul Wellman

Prosecuting attorney Joyce Dudley (pictured above with the defendant on the stand) delivered one of the more sizzling and searing closing arguments of her lengthy legal career, castigating defendant Sylvia Vasquez as a cruelly narcissistic child abuser and “one of the worst kind of liars there is.”

Vasquez had pled no contest to four charges of child abuse involving the treatment of her four adopted children, and her attorney Robert Sanger was hoping to persuade Judge Frank Ochoa that the counts should be reduced from felonies to misdemeanors. Where Dudley was all heat, seeking to inflame the judge – appealing at times to his own paternal instincts – Sanger sought to cool things down. To do so, he presented a woman who had gotten in way over her head in the care and treatment of four very difficult children. Yes, she did wrong, Sanger argued, but she loved her children, and she didn’t want to abandon them the way they’d been abandoned before.

The closing arguments capped the end of a very long and very bitter trial, during which the judge repeatedly admonished both attorneys to stop their bickering. Where Sanger was general in his plea for mercy, Dudley peppered the judge with specific details designed to offend his sensibilities. She described how Vasquez had kept two of her adopted children locked up in cages, how plastic buckets were placed in their rooms for urination and defecation, how they were underfed, malnourished, and “underloved.” She reminded Ochoa how Vasquez had burned one of her adopted daughters with a match, inflicted bruises by pinching her, and made her sleep on the floor “with rats” where the girl sustained flea bites. Even the one adopted girl who was Vasquez’s favorite was abused, Dudley charged. In this case, the girl was given injections of a drug designed to delay puberty and was the focus of 71 nude and semi-nude photographs that Dudley characterized as “child pornography.”

While Dudley clearly had the last word on Friday, Sanger and Vasquez have already won the key legal battle. Early on, Judge Ochoa ruled that Vasquez would not be sent to state prison and would serve no more than one year in county jail. Dudley noted that the maximum time Vasquez could have served was 10 years. While Sanger argued that Vasquez’s crimes should be regarded as misdemeanors, Dudley asked Ochoa to put the defendant back in jail immediately to serve out the remainder of her sentence.

In addition, Dudley asked the Judge to amend his initial deal to give Vasquez a 10-year sentence. Were Ochoa to do so, that would mean Vasquez would be on probation for 10 years, and any violation could send her to state prison. In addition, Dudley asked Ochoa to rule that Vasquez could not be allowed in the presence of any child – and certainly not her own – without court approved supervision.

The soonest Ochoa indicated he might rule is next Friday afternoon.


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