A former Saddleback Church youth mentor's conviction for molesting twin teenage boys was set aside due to juror misconduct.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Macias granted a new trial for Ruven Meulenberg, 35, of Lake Forest, who had been convicted in August of last year. Meulenberg will return to court next Friday for a pretrial hearing to discuss a new trial.
Brian Gurwitz served as the trial attorney for the defendant. After the conviction, attorney Correen Ferrentino was retained to present a motion for new trial, which she filed, then argued on Nov. 18. The court took the matter under submission and issued its ruling Friday, granting the motion. The defense's argument was that one of the jurors improperly shared information about psychiatric testing of subjects in criminal trials.
According to the defense, "One of the jurors was a law office manager who improperly brought up her personal experience with psychological testing that she's familiar with, supposedly through her work, in an effort to get the other jurors to ignore that evidence, and that's clear juror misconduct under the law.''
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The expert, Dr. Jody Ward, testified that Meulenberg not only did not have any sexual interest in minors, he also lacked homosexual tendencies, the defense stated.
The defense said the prosecution tried to retain that witness after the defense had already hired her, "so she's an exceptionally credible witness,'' and that Meulenberg "looks forward to proving his innocence at a new trial.''
Deputy District Attorney Courtney Thom told jurors in her opening statement of Meulenberg's trial that the defendant encouraged one of the twins to sit on his lap when they went to see a movie with the boy's brother. Meulenberg kissed the 14-year-old boy on the head and cheek before kissing him on the mouth, the prosecutor said.
"This occurred in isolation in the back row of a darkened movie theater,'' Thom said. "This is not saying hello or goodbye. This is the defendant manipulating his position of trust and confusing these young boys to see how far he could go.''
When Meulenberg asked the teen to kiss him, the boy said he did not feel comfortable doing so, Thom said. Meulenberg then asked to "switch seats'' so he could sit next to the boy's twin, according to the prosecutor.
The defendant did the same thing with the other boy, who was "reluctant'' to put up a fuss because he did not want to seem "ungrateful'' for the "help'' Meulenberg had provided as a volunteer youth mentor at the church, Thom said.
When they left the movie, Meulenberg had that boy "sit between'' his legs in the backseat of the car, Thom said.
When the brothers got home, the boy who was kissed by the defendant told his mother what had happened, she said. The mother contacted a church official, who called sheriff's deputies, according to Thom, who alleged that Meulenberg also molested the boys on one occasion in 2016, when they were 13 years old.
"The boys' mom was shocked by this,'' Thom said. "She entrusted her boys with this man. She felt she could trust him. She had no reason not to.''
One of the brothers made a "covert call'' to the defendant with law enforcement secretly eavesdropping, during which the defendant apologized for what happened and promised he wouldn't do it again, Thom said.
Meulenberg emigrated from Holland with his identical twin brother to work at Saddleback, Gurwitz said during the trial. They "have mentored countless kids over the years,'' he added.
Their sister and parents also came to the U.S., and the family lives together, he said. The victims, who are fraternal twins, were struggling with anger management and other behavioral issues as their parents discussed a possible separation, the defense asserted.
Meulenberg did not protest the boy's allegations in the covert call because he wanted to wait to talk to his mother first, according to the defense.
The defense accused investigators of being "extremely close-minded'' from the start and said they failed to get a search warrant to check the defendant's computers or digital devices for incriminating evidence such as child pornography.
The deputies didn't even ask Meulenberg if they could check his computers, and one of them failed to record an interview with the teenage twins, according to the defense.