A Fresno man was sentenced Wednesday to 11 years in prison for his role in the 2008 death of his girlfriend’s 17-month-old daughter Madison Garcia, who suffered a skull fracture and other injuries.
For more than six years, Benjamin Gomez has been in the Fresno County Jail, professing he never killed Madison. The girl suffered a head injury from falling from her crib, he has maintained over the years.
Two years ago, a Fresno County Superior Court jury split 7-5 in favor of convicting him of murder. Because the verdict wasn’t unanimous, prosecutors were ready to retry Gomez.
The Sunnyside High graduate with no criminal record quit his quest to prove his innocence last month when he pleaded no contest to a felony manslaughter charge. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors dismissed charges of murder and assault on a child causing death.
Gomez, 29, took the deal because if he had been convicted of either murder of the child assault charge, he would have faced life in prison, said Fresno attorney Scott Kinney, who defended Gomez.
With his plea to the lesser manslaughter charge — and because of the time he has already served in jail — Gomez should be released from prison in about three years, Kinney said.
“He wanted to prove his innocence, but the stakes were too high,” Kinney said. “At least now he will be a free man in a few years.”
Madison was seriously injured inside an east-central Fresno apartment while Gomez was watching the toddler on Dec. 5, 2008. She was later pronounced dead at Valley Children’s Hospital.
In his February 2013 trial, Gomez cried on the witness stand while telling jurors that after Madison fell out of a crib and hit her head, he tried to save the child’s life by performing CPR on her. He also told the jury that he answered all of the detectives' questions, but they still wanted to blame him.
But prosecutor Steve Wright argued that Madison had too many injuries to have died from falling from the crib. He also told the jury that Gomez flew into a rage and killed Madison after he learned her mother, Maribel Valdovinos, had been in contact with her ex-boyfriend, Madison’s father.
Wright’s theory was bolstered by the testimony of a paramedic who responded to Gomez’s 911 call. The paramedic testified that Madison’s injuries weren’t consistent with a fall from a crib, but looked as if she had been in a “boxing match.”
Dr. Venu Gopal, a forensic pathologist for the Fresno County Coroner’s Office, testified Madison’s death was caused by “head injuries due to multiple blunt impacts.” The girl died from several injuries, the most serious being a 5-inch skull fracture, he said.
Kinney, however, told the jury that Valdovinos and her ex-boyfriend weren’t getting back together. Their telephone call was an argument over Madison’s custody, Kinney said.
Valdovinos testified that she and Gomez had talked about getting married. They had been seeing each other for six months and were living together for three months when Madison died.
She also told the jury that Madison had fallen backward from a couch and from her crib less than two weeks before she died.
The thin carpeting in Madison’s bedroom is atop cement, Kinney argued.
Jurors deliberated four full days before telling trial Judge John Vogt that they were deadlocked.
Valdovinos didn’t attend Wednesday’s hearing; Gomez’s mother, Veronica Gomez, and his twin sister, Elizabeth Gomez, however, asked the judge to have mercy.
“My son is innocent. What happened was an accident,” a nervous Veronica Gomez said.
Elizabeth Gomez told Judge Alvin Harrell III “it’s been a tragedy for both sides.”
Harrell, however, said Gomez violated a position of trust and Madison was vulnerable victim.
Outside court, Veronica Gomez said her son loves children and took good care of Madison. Elizabeth Gomez said her brother used to coach soccer to neighborhood kids.
They said he took the plea deal to spare Valdovinos from testifying again, and he wanted to come home so he could take care of his 10-year-old son, Zachary.