After four-plus hours of deliberation on Thursday, a Fresno County jury rendered a “not guilty” verdict on the single count of child cruelty alleged against Asm. Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno).
Supporters of the two-term legislator who packed the courtroom gave out a cheer in relief. His wife, Elizabeth Arambula, began to cry.
Arambula was accused of hitting his seven-year-old daughter in the face on Dec. 9, leaving her with a bruise on her right temple. His daughter reported the injury to staff and faculty at Dailey Elementary School the following day, prompting investigations from Child Protective Services and the Fresno Police Department.
The police investigation yielded Arambula’s arrest and citation on Dec. 10 for child abuse. Child Protective Services placed the Arambula children with the legislator’s parents, former Asm. Juan and Amy Arambula.
The CPS investigation yielded an inconclusive finding as to whether Arambula engaged in general neglect of his daughter.
Following a forensic interview – wherein police began to suspect that the seven-year-old victim was being coached to walk back her accusations against her father – and further investigation by Fresno Police, the matter to the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office to file a single misdemeanor count of cruelty to a child in mid-March.
Following the filing of charges, Arambula took a voluntary leave of absence from the California State Legislature.
Many have mused that Arambula could have avoided such a prosecution had he made different statements during his televised interviews on Dec. 12.
Reached by phone on Thursday, Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp said the case may have gone an entirely different direction if not for Arambula’s fateful television interviews.
“If there would have been evidence that the child sustained the injury as a result of an accident or an act that was not intentional, criminal charges would not have been filed,” Smittcamp said. “However there was no suggestion of that.”
Citing the public relations battle waged after her office filed charges, Smittcamp argued that the case itself became “a circus created by the defense.”
“A skilled defense team creates smoke and mirrors when they want to avoid the truth,” the district attorney said. “And sadly, the way the law is written, sometimes those shenanigans result in situations where the jury is left so confused by the different scenarios that are presented that they feel that they have no choice but to render a not guilty verdict.”
“When you have defense attorneys who play these games and who stop at nothing to attempt to clear their client’s name, this is the result.”
Smittcamp directly responded to a common refrain by Aed during his closing argument, claiming that Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright was responsible for forcing Arambula’s daughters to testify.
“Our job is to be the voice for people who sometimes do not have a voice of their own,” she said. “And from the minute this child reported this injury to her teacher up and until the moment the not guilty verdict was received by the court she maintained that her father caused the injury to her head.”
“She never wavered from that,” Smittcamp added.
As to allegations of witness coaching, Smittcamp said she believed that various members of the Arambula family, including the seven-year-old’s grandmother, coached her to walk back her accusations.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the child was influenced by her family to minimize [the incident],” Smittcamp said.
Smittcamp said that, in her view, there was no other logical explanation as to how the seven-year-old sustained the injury to her face other than Arambula’s ring causing the injury when he hit his daughter in the face “in anger.”
She added that it was her office’s responsibility to prosecute cases of reported assaults that could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
“If anyone was going to walk Joaquin Arambula on these charges, it was not going to be me. It was going to have to be the jury. Period.”
In a press conference post-verdict, Aed argued that Arambula’s reputation had been irreparably damaged.
“His reputation is in the toilet, right?” Aed started. “It doesn’t matter what the verdict was in this case. He has to live with this the rest of his life, regardless of outcome what the was.”
Aed may very well have a point. While the legislator’s criminal liability has cleared, the media frenzy behind the case may have damaged Arambula’s reputation and placed his political career in jeopardy – regardless of the verdict.
In remarks following the verdict, Arambula thanked his wife, Elizabeth, and children.
“I would move heaven and earth for you,” Arambula said. “And I’m proud that my wife was by my side each and every day through this hard trial.”
As for Arambula’s occupation, he appeared to be ready to return to work in the California State Assembly, saying during the post-verdict press conference he would return on Monday.
Speaker Anthony Rendon issued a statement shortly after the verdict announcement, calling for family healing.
“The jury trial is a pillar of our criminal justice system. In this case, a jury of peers found Joaquin Arambula not guilty of the accusations made against him,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) said. “Having undergone this hardship, the Arambula family should be afforded the opportunity to heal and move forward.”