A Pacheco man who claims to have suffered from a condition called parasomnia when he molested his 9-year-old niece during a sleepover in April 2012 was acquitted in a Martinez courtroom today of sexual penetration of a child but found guilty of lewd and lascivious acts.
The Contra Costa County Superior Court jury reached a verdict this afternoon after initially deadlocking on the first charge against 36-year-old Ralph Dell. For the charge of sexual penetration against a child, the jury was asked to decide whether the defendant was suffering from parasomnia, a disorder in which someone can take part in various activities while sleeping.
After deliberating for about a day, the jury decided it could not agree beyond a reasonable doubt that Dell was not suffering from parasomnia, said jury foreperson Clark Wallace, although he said he himself didn’t find the “sleep-sex” argument convincing.
The jury wasn’t asked to decide whether the act was intentional in order to find him guilty on the count of lewd and lascivious acts on a child, for which they convicted him, Wallace said.
Ernest Castillo, Dell’s attorney, told the jury at trial that what his client did to the 9-year-old victim on April 12, 2012 was never in question. However, he argued that Dell was sleeping when he inappropriately touched the girl and awoke startled and “horrified” at what he was doing.
The victim, who testified at trial, was at Dell’s home for a sleepover with his daughter when the incident occurred.
The girls were lying on blankets watching TV when the defendant rubbed his daughter’s back to help her get to sleep. He then asked the victim if she wanted a backrub and began rubbing her back even after she said no, according to Deputy District Attorney Chad Mahalich.
The defense said that Dell was asleep and experiencing an episode of parasomnia when he then began rubbing the girl’s stomach and put his hand inside her underwear, digitally penetrating her.
After the one-time incident, Dell didn’t call police or the victim’s parents, according to attorneys for both sides. The girl told her parents what had happened the following day.
Castillo told the jury that the incident was not the first time Dell had suffered from an episode of parasomnia. During the trial, Dell’s ex-wife testified that he had engaged in sex-related conduct on multiple occasions while in a state that was “not fully awake and not fully asleep.”
The attorney said that she also testified that the defendant was intoxicated or high on drugs during the past incidents, but never mentioned drugs or alcohol when interviewed by police.
Though the jury found Dell guilty of the second count against him, Castillo said the verdict “reflects an acknowledgment that my client did suffer from an episode of parasomnia during this incident.”
Mahalich said that while he does not dispute that parasomnia is a legitimate medical condition, the evidence doesn’t show that the defendant was suffering from it when he molested the victim.
The defendant also lied to police when he told them he’d experienced previous sex-related episodes of parasomnia with a former girlfriend – which the woman testified never happened, according to Mahalich.
Dell is set to return to court for sentencing on Sept. 5. In custody since his arrest two years ago, he faces a maximum prison term of six years, attorneys said.