California Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula enters not guilty plea in child cruelty case

Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, entered a not guilty plea to a misdemeanor child cruelty charge on Wednesday in Fresno County Superior Court.

Arambula’s attorneys, Michael Aed and Margarita Martinez-Baly, appeared on behalf of Arambula, who was not present. Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright appeared on behalf of the county, and the two sides agreed to an April 23 trial date.

When pressed about why Arambula, a public figure even before his election, did not appear in person Wednesday, Martinez-Baly said “he does not have to.”

The Fresno County District Attorney’s office filed the charge Tuesday after Arambula’s arrest and release in December. He is accused of injuring his 7-year-old daughter.

Arambula, his wife and his attorneys have all said he is innocent. Arambula has insisted he was only disciplining his daughter, while Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer has been no less insistent that a crime was committed. Wednesday afternoon, Dyer used a regularly scheduled event to speak out on the Arambula case again.

During a news conference after Wednesday’s arraignment, Aed said the district attorney’s decision to file a charge was disappointing. He said he had offered additional evidence and given the DA a chance to interview his client before making the decision, but the office did not respond. He learned of the decision to file Tuesday morning, when the DA went public.

Wright declined to comment after the arraignment.

Political motivation?

Arambula, who’s also a physician, took a voluntary leave of absence from the Assembly on Tuesday.

When asked if Arambula’s political future – he will need to file for re-election by the end of the year should he wish to seek it – was a motivating factor in pushing for a speedy trial, Aed said it was. The two sides have already begun exchanging evidence, he added.

“We expect that the jury process will vindicate Dr. Arambula,” Aed said. “This is not about politics. This is about a human being – a father of three children who has a reputation.”

However, it was Arambula – through a statement released Tuesday by Martinez-Baly – who first broached the possibility of political motivation in District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp’s decision to file the charge.

“While politics may have influenced the decision to file, we are confident that our judicial system will find this allegation to be false,” the statement said.

Smittcamp’s office immediately released a response denouncing the notion of any political motivations in the case.

“We base our filing decisions on the law and evidence collected during the investigation,” the statement said.

Smittcamp married into one of Fresno’s most prominent conservative families. Her father-in-law, Bob Smittcamp, formerly served as campaign chair for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. The family donated heavily to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and has frequently supported local Republican candidates.

Arambula comes from Democratic stock. His father, Juan, spent most of his six-year career holding what is now Joaquin’s 31st District seat as a Democrat. (He finished his term as an independent.) Joaquin Arambula has close ties with many elected Democrats in Fresno, including state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, Fresno City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria and Fresno City Councilman Miguel Arias.

Martinez-Baly said the facts spoke to the political nature of Smittcamp’s decision.

“When you have top law enforcement officials making comments to the media about matters that are not public knowledge, and when you have the No. 2 person in the DA’s office coming into court to try the case – then you make your own judgment,” Martinez-Baly said.

Wright is one of Smittcamp’s top attorneys. Misdemeanor cases are typically handled by far less-experienced prosecutors.

Aed said Arambula believes he’s been mischaracterized by statements from law enforcement, presumably Dyer.

“(Arambula) believes he will be vindicated and have his case heard in the court of law rather than the court of public opinion,” Aed said.

Chief Dyer defends investigation

During the Fresno Police Department’s regular crime report to the media on Wednesday, Dyer said that both his detectives and the district attorney made their decisions to arrest and subsequently charge Arambula based on the evidence.

“This is not about politics,” Dyer said. “This is about pursuing justice by a law enforcement agency and a district attorney’s office. It’s unfortunate that defense attorneys would try to transfer the blame upon the police department, upon the officers, upon the district attorney’s office.”

Dyer said it was common for defense attorneys to use this tactic.

“The facts are the facts in this case,” Dyer said. “And whatever happens in the outcome of this case is not really of significance to me. What is of significance is that our police officers pursue justice in this case, and that is exactly what they did. And I support their decision to do what they did.”

“”They weren’t playing politics. They were pursuing justice,” Dyer added.

Aed said he could not comment on what evidence the district attorney plans to present against Arambula, as he had received it only that morning in court.

Arambula has had full custody of his three daughters returned to him since Dec. 12, two days after his arrest. Aed said it was his understanding that the county’s child protective services determined “the charges weren’t substantiated.”

Judge Ana de Alba was originally scheduled to hear Arambula’s case but recused herself due to a conflict of interest. Judge Gary Green received the assignment and set the trial date. Both sides are due to appear April 2 for a pre-trial conference.

Criminal defense perspective

Ralph Torres, a Fresno defense attorney with 25 years of experience who’s not involved in Arambula’s case, said he did not understand why the district attorney chose to file a charge in this case, given that Fresno County Child Welfare has already reviewed Arambula and the family’s home and deemed it safe for his daughter to return to his custody.

“This is not a crime that will expose him to any type of jail time,” Torres said. “It’s a high-profile case due to his position, but if child services has already refused to proceed – I don’t know why the DA wants to pick up that charge.”

Torres said he’s handled previous cases similar to Arambula’s, which he characterized as a strong parent using physical discipline, although his primary focus is the more serious felony defense cases.

Torres said the misdemeanor child cruelty cases he handled previously were almost always resolved by some sort of diversion plan. The defense and the district attorney will agree that if the defendant completes anger management, parenting classes or something similar within six months, the case will be dropped. Torres said that normally he recommends such a settlement simply to save his clients a lot of money.

But, Torres said, if Arambula goes through to trial, Torres believes there’s a good chance the Assemblyman could win.

“You can’t prove the facts of this case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Torres said.

Possible: Child testimony

In situations where child abuse is suspected and the child is old enough to answer questions, authorities often tape their interviews.

“This happens quite often,” Torres said. “But in order for that to be used as evidence, the child would have to testify along with it.”

This puts the prosecution in a difficult position, Torres said, because it would have to allow the 7-year-old victim in this case to be questioned by the defense. This is common in felony cases but probably would not happen in a misdemeanor.

Whether such testimony would hurt the defense depends on what’s on the tape, Torres said.

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