Former Fresno police officer Jesse Joe Ruelas was found not guilty Tuesday of abusing his teenage daughter when he slapped her in the face after he says she cursed him, wished he was dead and blamed him for the family’s breakup.
Ruelas stared straight ahead as the verdict was read in Fresno County Superior Court. Moments later he wiped away tears. Some people in the courtroom applauded.
A jury of six men and six women deliberated less than 90 minutes before deciding Ruelas was not guilty of two misdemeanor charges of corporal injury to a child and child abuse. Jurors also rejected the lesser charge of battery.
After the verdicts were read, jurors left the courthouse without commenting. Ruelas declined to comment to reporters, but he thanked his lawyer, Roger Wilson, and his family and friends who packed Judge Arlan Harrell’s courtroom.
A jury of six men and six women deliberated less than 90 minutes before finding Jesse Joe Ruelas not guilty.
Both sides agree that Ruelas, 45, hit his then 14-year-old daughter while he drove a pickup on the freeway toward his home in Clovis in May 2015. What was in dispute was whether he was disciplining the girl or abusing the girl for questioning his authority.
The incident happened May 21, 2015, on the one-year anniversary of Ruelas’ separation from his estranged wife, Marisela Ruelas.
In closing arguments Tuesday, Wilson told jurors that Ruelas is innocent because the law gives parents the right to discipline their child. Wilson also said Marisela Ruelas used her daughter to get an upper hand in ongoing divorce and child custody proceedings.
Wilson said Ruelas admitted to slapping his daughter, who is identified in court only as Randi. He said the girl deserved to be punished because “she was unruly, disrespectful and trying to diminish his authority in front of his two boys.”
In addition, Wilson told the jury that parents don’t get a handbook on how to raise children.
“He is doing the best he can with what he knows at the time,” Wilson said. Because Randi was “out of control,” Wilson said Ruelas “does what he thinks is right.”
Prosecutor Nicole Galstan agreed that Randi should not have talked back to her father. But Galstan insisted that Ruelas was abusing his daughter by striking her four times near her right ear because he was angry at her.
“You don’t need a parent handbook to tell you that it’s not OK to hit you daughter in the head while you are driving on the freeway,” Galstan told the jury.
Ruelas, a 19-year police veteran, had a spotless record with the Police Department before his daughter accused him of striking her. He lost his job once the District Attorney’s Office filed misdemeanor charges against him.
During the trial, jurors learned that Ruelas had told police that his estranged wife had turned their daughter against him: “I’m not trying to put down my daughter. She is my daughter and I love her very much. But she hates me.”
Both sides agree that Randi, now 15, was seated behind her father in his pickup when she was struck.
She testified that she and her father got into a heated argument after she reminded him that it was the one-year anniversary of his separation from her mother. She told the jury that her father hit her four times in the right temple of her head with the heel of his right palm as he drove on the freeway. The blows caused her to get dizzy and tired and gave her headaches, she said.
But Ruelas testified that he only slapped his daughter twice in the right cheek with two of his fingers. After he slapped her, Ruelas said, his daughter didn’t cry or complain about having headaches.
Demonstrating for the jury, Ruelas flung his right hand back as he sat at the witness stand. Because he is a large, hefty man, Ruelas told the jury it was physically impossible for him to strike his daughter with the heel of his palm while he was driving. “I’m not that flexible,” he said.
But he said his second slap to Randi’s face did cause him to swerve his pickup slightly on the freeway.
His 10-year-old son, Andy, also testified against his father. He said he saw his father strike Randi at least two times, causing her to get a red right cheek.
Jesse Joe Ruelas isn’t out of trouble yet. In October 2015, Ruelas was arrested after California Department of Justice agents found several firearms in his home – a violation of a criminal protective order.
Ruelas isn’t out of trouble yet. In October last year, Ruelas was arrested after California Department of Justice agents found several firearms in his home – a violation of a criminal protective order that was issued in his child abuse case involving Randi. The guns were supposed to be surrendered to law enforcement pursuant to the Oct. 14 protective order. California law precludes possession of guns by those under such an order.
The District Attorney’s Office has charged Ruelas with one felony and four misdemeanors.
But after the verdicts were announced Tuesday, Galstan told the judge that she would move to dismiss the protective order against Ruelas.
Outside court, Wilson said the dismissal of the protective order will increase Ruelas’ chances of prevailing in the pending gun case. If that is accomplished, Wilson said, Ruelas can move forward with his goal of returning to the Fresno Police Department.
“He was a good, dedicated cop with a lot of friends in the department,” Wilson said. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think the department should take a second look at him.”