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Jury to Begin Deliberating in Case Against Montecito Church Employee Accused of Molestation

The fate of an All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church employee, who faces a felony molestation charge, was placed in the hands of a Santa Barbara jury Friday at the conclusion of more than a week of testimony.

On Friday afternoon, more than 40 parishioners packed the chambers in support of Carlos Ruano, 67, who has been the Montecito church’s sexton since 2005, as counsel delivered closing arguments in the trial that began last Tuesday.

Ruano, who as sexton oversaw ground maintenance and the logistics of all church events, has been charged with one felony count of lewd conduct against a minor — his then 7-year-old step-granddaughter — during an incident that allegedly took place last July in his Santa Barbara home.

Prosecutors allege that Ruano, who has been in custody since last year, inappropriately touched the victim when she visited his home on July 29, 2012.

According to court documents, the victim had been jumping on a bed with her brother when he jumped onto her stomach, injuring her. Ruano allegedly touched her beneath her underwear while he was applying lotion for the stomach pain.

On Friday, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa read jurors their final deliberation instructions at 4:45 p.m. after they heard final words from both sides of the case. Jurors are scheduled to reconvene at 9:30 a.m. Monday to begin deliberating a verdict.

In closing, Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Ladinig called the young victim “courageous” for taking the stand against her step-grandfather and asked jurors — whom he called “fact finders” — not to get caught up in the details of her story that slightly change depending on where the child is questioned.

“What matters are the central things,” he said, periodically pausing to show jurors a portion of a video-recorded police interview with Ruano that shows him changing his own story.

Both sides attempted to discredit the other counsel’s witnesses and reiterated opening remarks while an interpreter quietly echoed their words in Spanish to Ruano and others through headphones.

Ladinig asked jurors to again disregard the defense’s claims that the victim was coached by her mother and grandmother to influence a custody battle, pointing to certain descriptive words she used to serve as proof of her own recollection.

"Do good people do bad things? Yes," Ladinig said.

Defense attorney Jeremy Lessem of Lessem & Newstat LLP reminded jurors of Ruano’s outstanding moral character, which was testified to by many throughout the trial.

Not a single witness was called by prosecution to point to any lacking in his character, Lessem added.

“This is about an innocent man on trial,” he said.

Lessem called the prosecution’s investigation “insufficient” and “biased” for assuming Ruano’s guilt and not asking the proper questions to reveal the whole truth.

Lessem lamented that jurors could not undo the harm that has been done to both Ruano and the victim, but encouraged them all to act on their reasonable doubt to find the defendant not guilty.

Ladinig offered a short redirect before Ochoa outlined the task that members of the jury now have before them.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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