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Va. judge tells young victim of sex abuse: ‘Your government has failed you’

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The Fairfax County judge told the girl who sat sobbing in his courtroom Monday that she had been victimized twice — once by the man who had sexually abused her for years and a second time by the prosecutors who handled her case.

“Make no mistake,” Judge Thomas P. Mann said in a stinging rebuke at a sentencing hearing. “Your government has failed you.”

Mann called the plea deal that the office of Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano had reached with Oscar Zaldivar “woefully inadequate” because it capped the 53-year-old’s sentence at about 17 years.

Mann called Zaldivar the “worst kind of predator” for molesting his young relative when she was between the ages of 5 and 10, including what prosecutors said was a years-long stretch when the abuse occurred at least weekly. Prosecutors also said he abused a second girl who was not a relative.

But Mann said he was reluctantly accepting the plea deal because it did not “shock the conscience,” the standard by which he could reject it under Virginia law. He pointed out that Zaldivar will be at least in his late 60s by the time he is released from prison. He ultimately sentenced Zaldivar to 17 years and two months, the maximum allowed under the agreement.

“I don’t know how people can listen to your pain and disregard it,” Mann said to the girl and her parents. “I’m offended for you.”

The parents had waged an unusual legal fight leading up to the hearing, trying to get Mann to reject the plea deal. They retained an attorney and filed a motion seeking to stop it. They believed that Zaldivar deserved decades more time in prison, but Mann ruled that they had no standing under state code to formally intervene in the sentencing.

The girl’s mother said after the hearing that the judge’s tough words were not enough and that she was “disappointed” with Fairfax County prosecutors and Mann. She spoke through a Spanish translator.

“The judge can give me 1,001 words of relief, but none of them are going to return the peace of which he spoke of during the sentencing hearing,” the woman said. “My worst fear is to think that my daughter goes out on the street after he gets out of prison and she runs into him.”

The Washington Post is not naming the girl or her parents because it generally does not identify the victims of sexual assault. Some details of the case have also been omitted to guard the girl’s identity, such as her age and exact relationship to Zaldivar.

Descano’s office and the Fairfax County public defender representing Zaldivar defended the deal, saying it was tougher than most.

“This 17 year sentence constitutes the high end of the sentencing guidelines — which means it’s a longer sentence than 75% of defendants who have committed these same offenses have received in Virginia,” Descano’s spokesman Ben Shnider said in a statement. “Respectfully, we find it inappropriate for the judge to be making political statements from the bench.”

Bryan Kennedy, the public defender, said Zaldivar was a first-time offender who had spent his adult years gainfully employed. He had also helped support friends and family in El Salvador. Kennedy called the chances of Zaldivar reoffending “very, very low” given his age.

“It’s a substantial sentence, especially for a 53-year-old man,” Kennedy said in court.

Zaldivar declined to address his crimes in court.

A Fairfax County grand jury indicted Zaldivar in 2019 on three counts of aggravated sexual battery and two counts of sodomy in connection with the abuse of the girl, who is a relative. He was indicted on abduction with intent to defile and one count of sexual battery in the case of the girl who is not a relative.

Under Virginia law, the sodomy counts carry a mandatory life sentence, since the abuse occurred between an adult and a child under 13. The other counts carry maximum sentences of more than 80 years in prison.

The case began under Descano’s predecessor, Raymond F. Morrogh, who offered Zaldivar a plea deal that waived the mandatory life sentences and capped his prison term at 30 years, the girl’s family said. Zaldivar rejected that deal.

Then Descano bested Morrogh in the 2019 Democratic primary, before winning the general election.

The family of the girl who was a relative said in an interview that they were outraged when Descano offered to waive the mandatory life terms and offer an even shorter sentence as part of a plea deal: 19 years. That offer was later reduced to about 17 years. Under Virginia law, defendants are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.

Descano’s office struck the language from the indictments that triggered the mandatory life sentences because officials say mandatory minimums preclude judging cases on an individual basis. During his run for office, Descano promised to bring liberal changes, including taking a less-punitive approach and undoing historical inequalities in the justice system, which he said included automatic mandatory sentences.

Zaldivar ultimately ended up pleading to six charges in connection with the abuse of two girls: two counts of sodomy, three counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of sexual battery. Zaldivar entered Alford pleas, in which a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to obtain a conviction.

Mann questioned prosecutor Nathan D. Freier about his office’s interaction with the victims in the case before he sentenced Zaldivar.

Freier said he knew of at least two meetings his office had with the family and said he was directed to offer the plea deal by an unnamed supervisor, even though the family did not back it.

The victim who was Zaldivar’s relative testified Monday, wiping away tears with a tissue. Prosecutors previously said Zaldivar had locked her in a room to carry out the abuse.

She said the crimes she suffered haunted her and had caused a major rift in her family, since many relatives did not believe she had been molested. She required therapy.

“I don’t really trust anyone because of him,” the girl said of Zaldivar.

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