In 1997, Louise John and her eight-year-old daughter moved into the home of a friend, 46-year-old Dennis Cerrano, in Vallejo, California, because they needed a place to live. In August 1997, John told police that she was in her bedroom and heard a muffled scream from her daughter’s bedroom. When she went to her daughter’s room, Cerrano came rushing past her.
John told police that she took her daughter into the bathroom and inspected her genitals and found them red and raw. After confronting Cerrano, who denied ever touching the girl, John summoned authorities.
The girl was taken for a medical examination which found redness around her vagina. A physician said this was consistent with the girl’s claim that Cerrano had rubbed her genitals through her clothing.
Cerrano was arrested and charged with three counts of sexual abuse of a child stemming from three alleged incidents. He took and passed a computer stress analyzer examination when asked if he had touched the girl’s genitals.
Cerrano went on trial in May 1998 in Solano County Superior Court. The girl testified that Cerrano had rubbed her genitals through her clothing on three different occasions.
Cerrano told the jury that he never touched the girl inappropriately and that his contact with her consisted almost solely of driving her to and from school as a favor to her mother.
On May 26, 1998, the jury convicted Cerrano of one count of sexual abuse of a child and acquitted him of the remaining two counts. Cerrano was sentenced to six years in prison.
In June 1999, the girl, who was 10 years old by that time, was living with her grandmother in another state. She told a mental health counselor that she had falsely implicated Cerrano. The girl said that on the day police were called to the house, her mother had taken her into the bathroom and ordered her to pull down her pants and underwear and demanded to know who had been touching her.
The girl said that she said, “Nobody,” and her mother slapped her and asked the question again. According to the girl, when she again said no one, her mother slapped her a second time. The girl said she blurted out the name “Dennis” so that her mother would stop hitting her because this was the first name she thought of. She said she told the same story to police because she was afraid that if she told police the truth—that there was no sexual abuse—that her mother would beat her again.
The girl told the counselor that at the time, her mother frequently checked her genitals and asked who was doing things to her. She said she had become terrified by these inquisitions and realized she could make them stop by giving a name. The mental health counselor later said that after the girl disclosed that she had lied, the girl’s mood improved and she stopped having nightmares.
In September 1999, Cerrano’s lawyer filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Cerrano was released on bond in October 1999 pending the outcome of the petition. The Solano County District Attorney’s office did not oppose the petition and on September 20, 2000, a judge vacated Cerrano’s conviction. The prosecution then dismissed the charge.
Cerrano filed for compensation from the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board. The claim was denied in September 2003.
– Maurice Possley