The tragic death of a 16-year-old Acton girl could have been prevented

Authorities said 49-year-old Juliano Santana abducted a 16-year-old girl while she was walking home from school on Great Road in Acton last month. Her body was later found in his car in the parking lot of her Acton residence, next to Santana’s residence. Both were dead from apparent gunshot wounds.

After reporting the kidnapping, a GPS device on his ankle helped police locate him and his victim.

The death of a child is always extremely sad; the preventable death of a child who has already suffered so much is an unspeakable tragedy.

As it turns out, Santana was released on $30,000 bail, with a GPS device and a court order prohibiting him from being in the company of anyone under the age of 18. The family also had a court restraining order issued against him. He was the beneficiary of repeated delays in the trial.

Santana, of course, had no incentive to demand a speedy trial. He was finally free, although his victim and her family had to remain in a prison of their own fear.

The country has a law that allows for the pre-trial detention of people accused of any crime that includes the use, attempted use or threat of physical force as an element of the crime.

But a 2019 decision by the state Supreme Court created a huge loophole in the pretrial detention process, ruling that dangerousness hearing provisions in some child sexual abuse cases were unconstitutional.

The decision was made in the case of David W. Barnes, who, at the age of 43, was accused of using social media to lure a 15-year-old girl to a hotel for sex. In his concurring opinion, Justice David Lowy wrote that “the counterintuitive result (of the decision) requires further discussion and consideration by the Legislature… the Pretrial Detention Act does not list rape aggravated by age difference as a qualifying offense.” Given today’s outcome, the Legislature may be willing to consider this omission.”

Well, the Legislature rarely does anything “willingly.” So now – more than five years later – in the wake of the Acton murder, there is once again talk of child rape being added to the list of offenses that would qualify for a dangerousness hearing.

Gov. Charlie Baker has made at least two attempts to expand the Disaster Act, first in 2018 and again on the day the SJC decision was announced. It was a broader attempt to expand the list of offenses that can warrant a dangerousness hearing, but also to reform the process, giving prosecutors more discretion to request a dangerousness hearing and providing judges with more information, including criminal history.

Civil libertarians express serious concerns about any pretrial detention, which by definition deprives a defendant of his liberty before he is convicted of anything. However, some people do pose an imminent threat to the community, and danger hearings at least provide a form of due process in making such determinations.

This year, Sen. John Velis is taking up the cause with legislation that would similarly expand the list of crimes that will be included in endangerment hearings, including “sexual offense involving a child” and assaults on public employees such as police or fire brigade, “engaged in the performance of their duties.” The bill is still pending in the Judiciary Committee, along with a similar effort by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr.

“The unfortunate reality is that there are still cases where really dangerous people continue to appear on our streets,” Velis told The Globe. “The Republic of Poland has its hands tied behind its back.”

This bill includes another amendment to state law to make it a separate crime punishable by imprisonment to remove or damage a GPS device ordered by a court. Over the weekend, North End restaurateur Patrick Mendoza, who was charged with attempted murder, was arrested after allegedly cutting off a GPS device he was wearing as a condition of his bail.

The police report quoted Mendoza as saying he turned off the device because “I’m tired of it and I’ve had enough.” According to the proposed law, this act itself would be “prima facie evidence” that nothing will ensure the presence of the accused at the trial outside custody.

It’s important to remember that even changing the dangerousness law only means that prosecutors may have a chance to put the defendant behind bars while awaiting trial. No dunks here. Ultimately, the decision will still rest with the judge, who can only rely on the evidence admitted before him.

But when a state’s highest court justice warns that the Legislature should take another look at the law, it’s important to take it to heart – preferably before yet another tragedy is linked to her lack of care.

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