Politics & Government

Fresno Assemblyman Arambula’s attorneys seek to discredit 7-year-old daughter’s stories of abuse

Attorneys for Joaquin Arambula revealed in court and during an interview with the news media Wednesday that at least part of their strategy to clear the Fresno assemblyman of a misdemeanor child abuse charge involves convincing a jury that his 7-year-old daughter, the alleged victim of the case, either exaggerated or lied in her statements to investigators.

The strategy was displayed during pretrial discussions, after Fresno County Superior Court Judge Alvin Harrell ruled against the defense’s attempt to have the case dismissed.

Arambula and his attorneys, Michael Aed and Margarita Martinez-Baly, clashed with Fresno County Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright for almost three hours Wednesday as the two sides worked out the evidence and procedures allowed in the upcoming trial.

Harrell first heard arguments over the defense’s motion to dismiss, which included an accusation of illegal evidence collection by the Fresno Police Department and previously unreleased specifics on the girl’s alleged injury – a one-inch bruise to her right temple.

The defense built their argument around the fact that Fresno County’s Department of Social Service found there was inconclusive evidence of abuse and chose not to intervene further. Aed also attempted to show that police illegally obtained a confidential report from Social Services.

Wright firmly rejected the latter claim, saying Aed and Martinez-Baly knew the evidence had been collected legally because the parties were told as much by a juvenile court judge. The rules for obtaining the confidential reports were changed more than a decade ago, Wright said, and that was made clear to the defense prior to their motion.

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Wright called for sanctions against the defense for their motion, which he referred to as “hogwash.” Harrell did not address the sanction request.

Prior to ruling, Harrell asked if the two sides had any meetings to discuss a possible settlement. Arambula, who nodded emphatically throughout much of his attorneys’ arguments, immediately told them he would not accept any sort of deal.

He was relatively brief in describing his decision to deny the defense’s motion to dismiss. He focused on the defense’s claim that parents have a right to discipline their children, which he said implied that what was alleged by the prosecution – some sort of slap to the victim’s face which left a bruise – was part of normal, legal discipline.

“That act is not reasonable,” Harrell said. “It’s abuse if that occurred.”

Harrell said he wasn’t saying that anything happened definitely, but that if things occurred the way the prosecution presented them, he considered the act “light-years different” than reasonable discipline.

The two sides then began the standard discussions for the exclusion and inclusion of certain pieces of evidence.

Perhaps the most interesting of these was one concerning Wright’s plan to use testimony from two of Arambula’s daughters, the victim and her sister, to establish that the assemblyman has a history of violent behavior towards his children.

The alleged victim described several times in which Arambula had hit, kicked or squeezed her.

Aed argued that girls’ statements, taken during a standard interview in abuse or domestic violence cases, were inconsistent. The alleged victim first claims she can name 10 instances of abuse, then nine, then only names a handful. There were no dates given or evidence to support the claims. Arambula’s friends and family say they have not seen him hurt his children in the past.

He noted that the girl and her sister described a “caveman stick” that Arambula and his wife allegedly used to hit the girls, but he said he wasn’t sure exactly what a “caveman stick” is and added that investigators did not mention finding any such stick in their home.

Aed said the girl may have been embellishing and called the allegations “ridiculous” and “fantastic.”

Harrell said he had reviewed the taped interview of the alleged victim, and he found that she was quite intelligent and seemed to understand what was happening. She was “very specific” in her allegations, he added.

The judge conceded that minors can have a “vivid imagination” or even lie, but these statements didn’t strike him as being made up. Furthermore, the previous allegations are important evidence – so much so that Harrell agreed with Wright’s assessment, which was that not allowing a jury to hear of the alleged prior abuse could be misleading.

After the court proceedings concluded, Aed acknowledged the awkward situation his client was in.

“It’s an uncomfortable place to be (for Arambula),” Aed said, explaining that Arambula basically has to call his daughter a liar in front of a jury and does not want to.

He would not explicitly say that the alleged victim lied to investigators, but he said that in general, kids do lie. Aed said the defense did everything it could to prevent a 7-year-old from having to appear before a jury in a case against her father.

Aed said he will look to recruit a jury that will be “well-versed in the school of life,” specifically parents.

When asked about Arambula’s public description of what happened the night in question – that he had only spanked his daughter on the buttocks – Aed declined to comment on it. He said the facts of that night will be revealed when Arambula testifies.

The two sides will continue their evidence-related discussions on Thursday, with jury selection scheduled for either Friday or Monday. Opening statements and the actual trial are expected to begin Tuesday.

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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.