MARTINEZ -- A Contra Costa County jury returned a split verdict in the case of a Pacheco man who claimed that a sexual sleep disorder was the reason he sexually abused a young girl in 2012, convicting him of one count that will likely send him to prison while acquitting him of a more serious charge that carries a life sentence.
There was no question Ralph Dell touched and fondled a 9-year-old girl inside his Pacheco home. The 36-year-old admitted doing so to police and while testifying at his trial this past month.
But, in a possible first for Contra Costa County, a jury had to decide if Dell was conscious at the time, or suffering from "sleep sex," a recognized disorder during which a person commits sexual acts while sleeping, and the key defense used by Dell's attorney.
On Wednesday, the jury of nine men and three women found Dell not guilty of one count of sexual penetration of a child under 10, a charge that carries a maximum of life in prison.
Instead, jurors found him guilty of a lesser charge of lewd acts upon a child under 14, a charge that has a maximum sentence of eight years in prison.
"The not-guilty verdict on count one is huge for us," defense attorney Ernesto Castillo said. "It gives (Dell) his life back and he gets to come home."
The then-9-year-old girl accused Dell of molesting her as she watched television in the living room during a sleepover with Dell's daughter in 2012. The girl's father called police the next day after she told him about the incident.
Dell did not refute the girl's claim, but said he was suffering from the sleeping disorder known as parasomnia or sexsomnia. Defendants in New Jersey and Canada have won acquittals using the "sleep sex" defense, but prosecutors in Contra Costa said this appears to be the county's first case.
Outside of the courtroom, jury foreman Clark Wallace, 81, of Orinda, said the jury was not unanimous on whether Dell was awake or asleep during the alleged penetration of the girl. The jury did not have to consider that fact when it came to the second count, Wallace said. Wallace said he was not convinced Dell was in a state of parasomnia.
"It's a new science, but it's not an exact science," he said.
The girl, who is entering middle school this fall, has been going through counseling, her father said Wednesday.
"My daughter is so strong," he said. "My stomach's been in knots all week. (Dell) is getting what he deserves."
Dell is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 5.
David DeBolt covers breaking news. Contact him in Richmond at 510-262-2728. Follow him at Twitter.com/daviddebolt.