7-year-old daughter of Assemblyman Arambula wraps up testimony in father’s child abuse trial

The daughter of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula finished testifying in the misdemeanor child abuse case against her father on Monday, but the details surrounding a bruise on her head and Arambula’s subsequent arrest in December remain murky.

Arambula, D-Fresno, was arrested on Dec. 10 and charged with misdemeanor child abuse on March 12. He is accused of injuring his daughter. Both Arambula and his wife have denied the allegations and pushed for a speedy trial.

After several hours of testimony on Friday, the 7-year-old was back on the witness stand for about 90 minutes on Monday – this time holding a stuffed puppy and a small purse in the shape of a panda bear as she answered questions from her father’s lawyers. Her grandfather, former Assemblyman Juan Arambula, again joined her for support.

However, Monday’s testimony was starkly different than what the jury heard on Friday.

Whereas Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright spent nearly all of his time questioning the alleged victim about the circumstances leading up to and following her injury, Arambula’s attorneys did not ask a single question about that night or any alleged abuse. Instead, they spent more than two hours asking the girl seemingly unrelated questions about her likes and dislikes and about various family trips.

And at no point during the girl’s nearly five hours of testimony did she address a key discrepancy in the case: Arambula, in interviews with news media two days after his arrest and again in the opening statements of this trial, claims he only spanked the girl. But she did not describe any spanking, nor was she asked to by either side.

Defense’s turn

Margarita Martinez-Baly, one of Arambula’s attorneys, led the questioning of her client’s daughter. The girl was the prosecution’s first witness, so Wright went first before yielding to Martinez-Baly for about an hour on Friday and another 90 minutes on Monday.

Martinez-Baly began her questioning on Friday by asking the girl whether she liked to read and write short stories, which she does.

She then asked the girl to describe “The Tale of Despereaux,” a book she had read in her second-grade class. After the girl gave her summary, Martinez-Baly asked her specific questions regarding Mig, a character who is sold into slavery and beaten across her ears.

During her opening statement prior to the girl’s testimony, Martinez-Baly said the girl had told investigators her dad had tried to hit her ears but missed, and the attorney hinted this part of the girl’s story may have come from the novel.

Martinez-Baly also said in her opening statement that the girl’s uncle, Nate Miller, will testify he saw the girl collide head-first with one of his children on the night before the alleged abuse occurred.

However, when the attorney asked the girl about this, she said she could not remember playing the game or any such collision.

She told Martinez-Baly that she’s been seeing a therapist, and her father has not gotten angry as quickly or as often as he used to since her counseling began.

The girl also spoke at length about feeling like her sisters get more attention than she does.

On Monday, Martinez-Baly began by asking the girl about a series of trips apparently made by the family in the last few months: Guadalajara, Cambria, Disneyland.

She showed the girl pictures from these trips and past events, such as Arambula visiting her school to talk to her second-grade classmates about his career as a physician or the girl and her father at the school’s father-daughter dance.

At one point, the girl said she, her siblings and her cousins milked chocolate milk out of a cow in Guadalajara.

“It must have been a magic cow?” Martinez-Baly asked, to which the girl said yes.

This continued for about 90 minutes, with only brief detours to once again ask the girl about her feelings of jealousy toward her sisters. Arambula’s daughter did not mention anything Monday about the alleged abuse.

Prosecution’s questioning

On Friday, the girl took the stand as the first witness for the prosecution. She held a stuffed rabbit draped in a Wonder Woman costume and was joined on the witness stand by her grandfather for support.

Her testimony appeared to be a mixed bag for the prosecution.

Yes, it was her father who caused the bruise on her temple with his ringed finger, she said. But it happened as he “grasped” her head with both hands while pinning her to the bed, not from a slap – as Wright had told the jury during his opening statements just prior to her testimony.

The girl admitted she used the word slap to describe the alleged altercation to investigators, but she said she has since learned what grasp means and feels that’s a better descriptor. She was asked where she learned the word and answered that she could not be certain.

At one point, Wright asked if Arambula “intentionally hit” her the first time he grasped her head.

“No, he was trying to push my head down instead of hurting me,” she said. “He was trying to push my head down instead of trying to hurt my head.”

She said the second “grasp” also was not intended to hurt her.

However, about two minutes later, the girl said Arambula’s ring on his left ring finger is what caused the bruise. Wright then showed her a picture of herself taken on Dec. 10 and asked if she recognized it.

“Yes, I recognize the bruise,” she said. “That was where he hit me.”

She then pointed to her right temple. The bruise forced her to sleep on the left side of her body for two to three weeks because it hurt to sleep on her preferred right side, the girl added.

She said her father has sometimes squeezed her and her middle sister, who is about a year younger than she is, but also said she could not remember most of the specific incidents of alleged prior abuse – Arambula punching, kicking, elbowing the girls – she recounted in her interview with investigators after the Dec. 9 incident.

But she also told Wright that she had been honest with all of the investigators involved at the time of her interviews.

Next witness

After the girl’s testimony, Wright called his second witness: Fresno Police Detective Ken Dodd.

Dodd was the lead investigator into the alleged abuse. He gave a brief overview of the events that led him to organize a special forensic interview through the Fresno County Multidisciplinary Interview Center, which recruits a trained professional to perform one taped interview of a domestic violence, child abuse or sexual assault victim for all law enforcement purposes. That interview took place on Dec. 11.

Wright provided the jury with a transcript of that interview and began playing the recording on Monday. Only about 30 minutes was shown before the court adjourned for the day. It will continue the playback on Tuesday.

Related stories from Fresno Bee

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.