California

Assemblyman Arambula depicted as ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ as child abuse trial goes to jury

After nine days of testimony, a week of pre-trial discussions and more than five months of public questioning regarding a misdemeanor child abuse allegation against Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, the case was handed to the jury on Wednesday afternoon.

The Fresno County District Attorney’s office and Arambula’s attorneys made their final pitches over the course of about two hours Wednesday to the six men and six women who will ultimately decide the assemblyman’s guilt or innocence. The jury began its deliberations just after 2:30 p.m. and will have as much time as it needs to reach a unanimous decision or impasse.

If the decision does not come Thursday, it will be delayed until next week. The court will not be in session on Friday.

Prosecution

Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright was the first to deliver closing arguments to the courtroom nearly overflowing with onlookers – many of Arambula’s family, friends and allies but also members of the news media and a good number of uninvolved attorneys drawn to the high-profile case.

Wright used a PowerPoint presentation to review the evidence against Arambula, with much of his focus on the various interviews and testimony given by Arambula’s 7-year-old daughter – the alleged victim in this case.

Wright said the girl gave several versions of the events on Dec. 9 when she allegedly received a one-inch bruise on her temple. The prosecutor claimed the girl’s varying stories were due to the mounting pressures felt from her family as the case unfolded.

Wright said the first explanations to social services and law enforcement – that her father struck her with a ringed hand – are the most pure due to each coming just a day after the incident and prior to any of her family members discussing the situation with her.

At one point, Wright compared the situation to that of the plot of the classic novel, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Wright said that Arambula’s defense attorneys attempted to paint the 7-year-old’s behavior as Jekyll and Hyde – an intelligent, articulate girl at times, but also someone who “is evil, lies and is physically abusive.”

Wright said it is actually Arambula who better fits that description. He acts a certain way in public or with his family, Wright said, but when he’s home alone with three girls, he can’t cope and turns to violence and anger.

Wright asked the jury not to disbelieve the young girl just because of the exaggerations in her story, such as her father being strong enough to rip a phone book in half.

Wright also played the tape of a televised interview with Arambula recorded two days after his arrest. In it, Arambula admits to spanking the girl, but claims to have no real knowledge of her injury or why he was arrested. Wright claimed that at the very least, a social worker had made Arambula aware of the injury during private interviews prior to his media appearances.

The prosecutor noted Arambula has a public reputation that he wants to maintain and claimed the assemblyman does not want the public to know he is not the perfect parent.

“I can understand that, but I can’t understand throwing your daughter under the bus in order to protect your own reputation,” Wright said as he closed out his case.

Defense

Michael Aed, one of Arambula’s attorneys, began his response by taking immediate offense to the “Jekyll and Hyde” reference. Aed called it “insulting,” saying he was proud to represent Arambula.

Aed’s approach was far different than Wright’s. He did not use a PowerPoint or videos. He barely glanced at his notes. While Wright remained somewhat stationary and spoke in a consistent tone, Aed moved across the courtroom and grew animated with his hands and body, at times raising his voice or lowering it to a whisper.

Aed mentioned several times that he was a parent of young children, telling the jury “if this is the way they investigate child abuse, we should all be afraid.”

He pointed to what he considers to be inconsistencies in the girl’s testimony – several versions told in a short period, some of which characterize the injury as an accident. He called the girl “an actress in certain ways,” a “playwright” and noted that her family described her as a bit of a “drama queen” who will do anything to get attention.

“There is no clear evidence to establish how (the girl) got that bruise,” Aed said. “There is no evidence to suggest that Dr. Arambula intentionally struck his child in the head.”

He continued: “If there are multiple reasonable scenarios that suggest how the incident occurred, the law requires you to accept the one that points to innocence.”

He offered several alternatives for how the girl got the bruise. Perhaps she hurt herself playing the night before, or as she was fighting with her sister, or while she jumped from bed to bed shortly before her father grabbed her.

Aed appealed to the parents and grandparents in the jury, of which there are several, to think about their own experiences with 7-year-olds fleeing discipline and fighting rules.

Arambula’s attorney rejected the notion that his client was subjecting his own daughter to the stress of testifying in court, saying it was the police and district attorney who chose to do that to two of Arambula’s children.

Aed pointed out that Fresno police detective Ken Dodd testified that Arambula’s middle daughter told him that she saw her father spank her older sister, meaning two of the three people who were actually in the room gave similar accounts of what happened. It is the alleged victim – the primary witness for the prosecution – who is the outlier.

Aed criticized a lack of follow-up investigation on the part of the Fresno Police Department. No one attempted to interview Arambula’s family – “the people who know him best.”

He also dismissed a claim made by Wright that if the elder daughter had been such a problem child, why didn’t the family have her in counseling prior to the incident? He said the family is now in counseling; it had no reason for therapy before it was put through the trauma of police coming to the girls’ school, being taken from their family, Arambula’s arrest and so on.

Aed noted that his client, who represents roughly 500,000 Fresno County residents in Sacramento, has had his reputation tarnished by this case regardless of the outcome.

Wright’s response

In his short rebuttal after Aed’s argument, Wright claimed that if the injury occurred before the incident, Arambula would have seen it while washing the girls’ hair just prior to putting them to bed.

Wright said it was not as Aed claimed – that the jury simply had to throw the versions of the events against a wall to see what sticks. The girl was clearly bruised, as evidenced by testimony and photographs, and she told multiple people it was her father’s “warm hands and cold ring” that caused it.

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Rory Appleton is a fourth-generation Fresnan who covers politics for his hometown newspaper. A Fresno State graduate, he has won six first-place California News Publishers Association awards and a McClatchy President’s Award for his reporting and column writing over the last two years.
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