Politics & Government

Assemblyman Arambula’s daughter, holding stuffed bunny, testifies as abuse case against him begins

7-year-old daughter of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula testifies in court

The 7-year-old daughter of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, at the center of his misdemeanor child abuse trial, testifies in court, Friday, May 3, 2019. Only her voice was allowed by the court to be recorded.
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The 7-year-old daughter of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, at the center of his misdemeanor child abuse trial, testifies in court, Friday, May 3, 2019. Only her voice was allowed by the court to be recorded.

The trial of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, began Friday with opening statements from the Fresno County District Attorney’s office and his attorneys and soon progressed to the testimony of his 7-year-old daughter, the alleged victim in the misdemeanor child abuse charge against him.

Arambula was arrested in December and charged with the crime in March.

Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright was the first to address the newly formed jury. He told them that his evidence would show that on Dec. 9, Arambula was so upset and angry at his daughter that he squeezed her face and smacked her, leaving a bruise on her right temple due to his wedding ring on his left hand.

Wright said Arambula has a history of violent behavior toward his daughters.

The prosecutor went through the events leading up to and after Arambula’s arrest, saying the girl told her teachers, social workers and police officers that her father had caused the bruise on her temple.

He also accused Arambula’s wife, Elizabeth, and mother, Amy, of attempting to influence what the girl told law enforcement.

Watch highlights of opening statements in Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula’s misdemeanor child abuse trial from Assistant District Attorney Steven Wright and defense attorney Margarita Martinez-Baly in Superior Court on Friday morning, May 3, 2019.

Defense foreshadowed

Margarita Martinez-Baly, Arambula’s attorney, began her opening statement by describing the care with which Arambula treats his three young daughters. He took them to church and the library on Dec. 9, made the family dinner and bathed them before putting them to bed.

She said Arambula did respond to the cries of his middle daughter that night and disciplined his eldest daughter, but only with a spanking to the buttocks. Arambula will testify that he does not know how the bruise happened and did not notice it the next day as he was running late while dropping the girls off for school.

Martinez-Baly offered several ways in which the girl could have been bruised. It could have happened while playing with her siblings, or she could have been inadvertently bumped on the head as Arambula turned her over to spank her.

She said the girl’s uncle, Arambula’s brother-in-law, will also testify that the night before the alleged crime occurred, he saw the girl and her cousin bump heads while playing a game.

Martinez-Baly criticized the police investigation into Arambula and praised the Department of Social Services, which she said found there was not enough evidence to conclude that child abuse had occurred.

Girl takes stand

After the opening statements, the 7-year-old took the stand while clutching a stuffed bunny in a Wonder Woman costume. Her grandfather, former Assemblyman Juan Arambula, stood by her side for comfort.

The girl answered questions from Wright and Martinez-Baly for about three hours before court adjourned for the weekend. Wright was able to complete his initial round of questions, but Martinez-Baly still has more to ask of the girl. The court will resume with her testimony at 2 p.m. Monday.

Arambula’s daughter was able to answer most of the questions asked of her. She was quite articulate, using words like “quarrel” and “grasp.” There were several breaks in her testimony at the request of her grandfather. She hugged her parents, grandparents and various other family members assembled in the courtroom Friday during these breaks.

Both attorneys started their interviews with simple, off-topic questions and then slowly worked toward inquiry on the night in question and its aftermath.

She shared her version of the night’s events with Wright, saying her father entered the room after she made her sister cry, pinned her with his arms and legs, and “grasped” her face with both hands at two different times in an effort to push her head down. He did not squeeze her cheeks, she added.

She said it was her dad’s ring that caused her bruise. The first “grasp” felt like a shot you would get at the doctor, she explained, while the second was a different pain that felt slightly worse. She did not mention any spanking at any point during her testimony to Wright.

At one point, she said Arambula did not hit her on purpose.

The girl said she previously referred to the “grasp” as a slap when talking to investigators because she did not yet know what grasp meant, but she now believes it is the better way to describe what happened. Wright asked her where she learned the word, and she said she did not know for sure but it was likely from her parents or from school.

When Wright asked her about specific incidents of alleged prior abuse by Arambula – incidents she shared in forensic interviews shortly after the Dec. 9 incident – she said she could not remember any specifics, only that he squeezes her hard when she’s done something wrong.

However, she told Wright that she was not lying during her interviews with investigators, social workers and police.

She said she was not told by anyone what to say while in court Friday. But prior to her forensic interview the day after her father’s arrest, she said, her grandmother – Arambula’s mother – advised her to focus on “only nice things.”

Judge’s caution

At one point after his daughter and the jury had left the room for a break, Arambula was cautioned by the judge not to nod his head or emote in any way during the girl’s testimony so as to not give any possible impression he was influencing her. Throughout pre-trial proceedings, he has often nodded in agreement when his lawyers present their version of what happened, while shaking his head during the prosecution’s statements.

Toward the end of her testimony, the 7-year-old admitted she was scared her dad would get in trouble as she sat in the courtroom.

It’s unclear how much more testimony she will provide, or whether Arambula’s attorneys will ask her to relay her version of the night’s events once more. The defense has not finished its cross-examination of the girl, and when it does, Wright will have the opportunity to again question her if he wishes.

The girl is the first of more than 30 possible witnesses, according to a list provided to the jury before the trial began.

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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.
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