Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula in court to begin trial on misdemeanor child cruelty charge
Six men and six women will decide whether Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula abused his 7-year-old daughter on the night of Dec. 9.
Jury selection for the misdemeanor child abuse case against Arambula concluded Thursday, after more than two days of intense interviewing that cut a pool of 180 prospective jurors down to 12 with two additional alternates.
Arambula, the Fresno Democrat, was arrested, cited and released on Dec. 10 after his daughter’s school officials alerted police concerning a bruise on the child’s head. The Fresno County District Attorney’s office filed its case against him in March.
The assemblyman and his wife, Elizabeth, have maintained his innocence. They say he spanked the girl as an act of discipline stemming from a fight with her younger sister, but deny that Arambula has ever been criminally violent toward his children.
Elizabeth and Joaquin’s parents, Amy and former Assemblyman Juan Arambula, have been present throughout most of the pre-trial proceedings. However, due to the fact that the attorneys may call any or all of them as witnesses, they have sometimes been ordered to wait in the hall.
The trial has yet to truly begin, as Arambula’s attorneys and the district attorney’s office have moved through pre-trial motions and a lengthy jury selection.
Michael Aed and Margarita Martinez-Baly, Arambula’s attorneys, attempted to have the case dismissed before it got started by alleging the Fresno Police Department violated evidence collection laws, which Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright vehemently denied.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Alvin Harrell denied the motion.
Arambula and his attorneys have shown no interest in any possible plea deal, and he’s pushed for a speedy trial. He has been on leave from the Assembly since shortly after the charge was announced.
The judge and attorneys anticipate the case will be given to the jury for deliberation by May 15.
Jury selection began Tuesday morning and ran throughout Tuesday and Wednesday before concluding Thursday morning. It was a mostly uniform process, though Harrell took extra care in questioning potential jurors on whether Arambula’s public status or the substantial news media coverage the case has garnered would somehow taint their ability to be impartial.
More than half of the 180 potential jurors were released or deferred to a later date, many due to scheduling problems or personal hardships. Some, however, stated they could not give Arambula a fair shake due to what they’ve read or heard in the news media, and a few others were excused due to personal relationships with him or members of his family.
Martinez-Baly and Wright questioned the remaining jurors all day Wednesday and into Thursday before settling on the newly minted jury.
Much of the questioning centered around the issue of child discipline and specifically corporal punishment, which both sides admitted was at the heart of this case. Each potential juror was asked if they spanked their children or children in their care and why or why not.
Most of the 12 jurors are parents. One is a high school physical education teacher. Several are grandparents.
Jurors were also quizzed on whether they would hold Arambula’s elected office – or the fact that he is a Democrat – against him. One potential juror admitted he was a political donor to Arambula’s campaigns and was ultimately disqualified by the attorneys, as were several attorneys in the jury pool and a retired law enforcement officer who knew several of the Fresno police officers set to testify.
Martinez-Baly also showed the jury panel photos of Arambula’s daughter in which her left temple was bruised. She repeatedly referred to the young girl as “cute” and “bright,” and noted that everyone naturally wants to keep children safe.
“We all love children, whether we have them or not,” she told the jury.
However, it was important, she said, that the jury be able to weigh her testimony equally against her father’s. She and her colleague acknowledged the sensitivity of the case but will nonetheless have to question the girl’s accounting of the events leading to her father’s arrest. She asked the jury whether they would be able to think critically about the young girl’s statements and credibility.
Several potential jurors revealed that they did not believe they could do this. They would be inclined to believe the alleged victim and allow her testimony to sway their decisions more than the testimony of other witnesses. They were subsequently excused.
The two sides provided the jury with a list of more than 30 potential witnesses to ensure they did not know anyone who may testify. The list included several members of Arambula’s family, including his eldest and middle daughters, as well as a handful of police officers, investigators, county social workers and teachers from the alleged victim’s school.
The lawyers also questioned jurors on whether past experiences with either law enforcement or on past juries would affect their judgment in this case.
Wright and Arambula’s attorneys will give their opening statements to the newly formed jury on Friday morning.