Assemblyman Arambula found not guilty in child abuse case. He returns to Capitol Monday

California Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, the Fresno Democrat, was found not guilty Thursday in his misdemeanor child abuse trial.

The jury spent less than a day deliberating after the nine-day trial. Arambula’s wife, Elizabeth, burst into tears as the verdict was read. Family and friends let out several cheers.

After the case was adjourned, the assemblyman left the courtroom, unaccompanied, and walked alone several blocks to the office of his attorney, Michael Aed, where he held a brief news conference as reporters and family members caught up with him.

“It is time for me to do what I do best as a father: To sit and to play with my girls on the ground, to tuck them into bed tonight, to read them a story and to let them know that their family loves them and will always love them,” Arambula said.

Arambula was arrested in December on a misdemeanor child abuse charge after police were called out to his 7-year-old daughter’s elementary school. The Fresno County District Attorney’s office filed the charge in March. Arambula took a leave-of-absence from the Assembly shortly after.

During his news conference, Arambula thanked his wife and three daughters for sticking with him throughout the difficult trial. He apologized to them for the ordeal, and said even though they know that he loves them, he wanted to proclaim it publicly.

“I would move heaven and earth for you, and I’m proud that my wife was by my side every day through this hard trial,” Arambula said.

Because she was a witness, Elizabeth often had to wait outside the courtroom as the trial unfolded – as did Arambula’s parents, Amy and former Assemblyman Juan Arambula.

He asked for privacy for his family and specifically his three daughters.

“My children have been the subject of a spotlight, but they are children and deserve to grow up in peace and to play like normal kids,” he said.

Arambula thanked the jurors, whom he said “restored his faith” in the criminal justice system he placed his trust in.

His focus going back to work

He plans to return to the Assembly on Monday, he said.

The assemblyman then alluded to an assertion previously made by his attorneys that he was unfairly targeted for prosecution due to political reasons.

“However, I know that there are still problems in our criminal justice system, and that everyone needs to be treated equally and fairly,” Arambula said. “And that we need to ensure that the scales of justice are balanced.”

He continued: “You can be sure that I will be working on that in the state Legislature.”

District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp rejected his claim in an interview with The Bee shortly after Arambula’s news conference.

“This case is not about a parent’s right to discipline. It’s not about spanking. It’s not about politics or reputation. It’s about an injury to a 7-year-old child’s head,” Smittcamp said.

Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright, the county’s No. 2 prosecutor who tried the case, said he was disappointed in the verdict but hoped it would serve as an example to potential abusers.

“I hope that the attention this case got makes people realize that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do for a living, if you abuse a child, we’re going to do what we can do to hold you accountable,” Wright said.

Prosecution’s case

Wright built his case around Arambula’s eldest daughter, the alleged victim in the case. She was the prosecution’s first witness, and most of the subsequent testimony came from teachers, police officers and social workers she told about the one-inch bruise on her temple she claimed came from her father.

The girl provided various statements in the days after the Dec. 9 incident and while on the stand. Most of these placed the blame on Arambula’s ringed finger for her bruise, though some descriptions called it an accident.

In early interviews, she claimed Arambula hit her. She later said it was an accident. On the stand, she used the word “grasped” – a word she said she had since learned from either her parents or her teacher.

Wright claimed throughout the trial that the girl had been coached by her parents and grandparents to soften her story. At one point during her testimony, she said that she had “forgotten what she was supposed to call” the incident.

Arambula’s defense

Arambula defense attorneys Aed and Margarita Martinez-Baly focused on character witnesses – mostly family members – who rejected any notion that Arambula has been or would ever be violent toward any of his three daughters. He is a loving father, they all said, as well as a public servant and healer. (Arambula is a physician.)

Arambula’s family also described the 7-year-old girl as an intelligent but challenging child who rejects responsibility for her actions and is prone to telling tall tales.

The defense called the Fresno Police Department’s investigation into question, saying it failed to do necessary follow-up such as interviewing family members or attempting to authenticate the girl’s previous tales of abuse. It also praised the Fresno County Department of Social Services, which did interview family members. Social Services ultimately concluded there was insufficient evidence to confirm child abuse.

Sides spar after trial

In a news conference following Arambula’s, Aed and Martinez-Baly again repeated the political accusations, while noting the major damage to Arambula’s reputation and the yet unknown toll the case took on Arambula’s 7-year-old daughter.

“His reputation is in the toilet, right?” Aed said. “It doesn’t matter what the verdict was in this case. He has to live with this the rest of his life, regardless of what the outcome was.”

Aed said the jury found Arambula innocent, but public opinion may never fully agree.

“But the reality of it is you’re going to have a certain percentage of the population that now is going to look at him and treat him different,” Aed said.

Aed said people will draw conclusions about Arambula for the rest of his life based on the way he was portrayed in the media, which is not fair to him or his children.

“Her (Arambula’s eldest daughter) life is going to be affected forever. His life is going to be affected forever,” Aed said. “And you know what? The only process he had to get to some type of vindication was through a criminal process.”

Aed said Arambula has to sleep at night knowing he could have been convicted of a crime.

“He was charged with a criminal act, and he was charged with that criminal act before anybody ever looked at anything as a whole,” Aed said.

During an unrelated news conference, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer was asked to respond to the news of Arambula’s acquittal.

Dyer said regardless of the jury’s verdict in Arambula’s case, he continued to support the actions of his officers in arresting Arambula based on evidence they had at the time. Based on the physical evidence and information from the child, officers were in a position to take enforcement action.

He said he believes that if the officers had not taken any action, those officers and his department could have been criticized for playing favorites.

“I can promise you that there was absolutely no political motivation on my part or on the part of the district attorney, it was simply being the voice of the child,” he said.

Smittcamp said she had a duty to file the case based on the girl’s injury and statements to law enforcement.

She pushed back against the notion that her office turned the case into a media spectacle, saying Aed and Martinez-Baly created the circus before attempting to blame prosecutors.

Smittcamp said Arambula’s daughter’s testimony was “most certainly” influenced by her family, and she rejected any idea that the prosecution had somehow hurt the girl by calling her as a witness.

“The muddying of the child was done by the defense and the defendant’s family,” she said. “We did nothing but tell her story.”

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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.