SANTA CRUZ — A Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge on Thursday ruled that a new state law barring 14 and 15-year-old defendants from being tried as adults is unconstitutional, a decision that will almost certainly make its way to appellate court.
The ruling by Judge John Salazar means that, for now, the man who allegedly kidnapped, raped and murdered an 8-year-old girl will be tried in criminal court.
Adrian Jerry Gonzalez, now 18, faces life in prison for killing Madyson “Maddy” Middleton on July 26, 2015. He was 15 at the time of the crime.
Public defenders Larry Biggam and Ted Fairbanks said that Senate Bill 1391, which went into effect in January, prohibits anyone 14 or 15 years old from being prosecuted as an adult.
A judge ruled in 2017 that Gonzalez should be tried as an adult after a nine-week hearing. That decision was overturned about a year later by SB 1391.
Biggam says that Gonzalez would benefit from the therapy available in the juvenile justice system, and that the new state law must be followed.
“Public safety is served when you give kids treatment and rehabilitation,” he said. “This is common sense, and it’s validated by the data. Kids that get treatment recidivate less frequently than those that don’t get treatment.”
But Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeff Rosell said that law countermands voter-approved Proposition 57, and is therefore unconstitutional. Prop. 57, which passed in 2016, among other things requires a judge to determine whether juveniles are tried as adults.
In a five-page ruling, Salazar sided with the prosecutor, stating that SB 1391 “completely eviscerated” the district attorney’s ability to keep dangerous criminals in prison.
“What renders SB 1391 unconstitutional is that it goes too far,” Salazar wrote. “The voting public never agreed to allow extremely violent and dangerous individuals to be returned to the general public without first being rehabilitated.”
Outside court, Rosell said he was happy with the ruling.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “It’s exactly what should have happened.”
“Ultimately this will get resolved on an appellate court level, but today is a victory for Maddy Middleton and Maddy’s family,” Rosell said.
Salazar stayed further hearings until a decision comes from the appellate court on whether to accept the appeal.
Laura Jordan, Maddy’s mother, was standing outside court after the decision, holding a photograph of her daughter.
“I am feeling fantastic,” she said. “Justice has been done. Judge Salazar worked hard on this listening to nine weeks of the transfer hearing.”
A.J. Gonzalez is shown in Superior Court Thursday. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian
Biggam said he was not surprised by the decision, and said he plans to appeal the decision to the Sixth District Court of Appeal. He predicted the constitutionality question of SB 1391 will reach the California Supreme Court.
Biggam pointed out that, under state law, the California Department of Juvenile Justice can indefinitely petition to extend the commitment of juveniles they deem too dangerous.
“So there is a public safety backstop in existing law right now if you put a kid in the juvenile justice system,” he said.
Gonzalez has been in custody in Santa Cruz County Jail since October 2017, when he was transferred from Juvenile Hall.
He is being held on $5 million bail for 27 charges that include first-degree murder, kidnapping and numerous sex offenses. He faces life in prison if convicted as an adult.
He is accused of luring Maddy into his apartment in the Tannery Arts Center with the promise of ice cream. There, prosecutors say he strangled, raped and stabbed the girl before concealing her body in a recycling bin.