Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula was acquitted of child abuse Thursday in connection with a December incident in which prosecutors say he struck his 7-year-old daughter in the face.
Arambula faced one misdemeanor count of willful child cruelty. Prosecutors said the wedding ring on Arambula’s left hand left a small bruise near the girl’s right temple near her eye.
Had he been convicted, Arambula would have faced up to six months in jail on the charge. He was elected to the District 31 seat in 2016.
Arambula was stoic as the verdict was read. His wife, Elizabeth, broke into tears.
The six-man, six-woman jury deliberated for about four hours before returning the verdict. The trial lasted nine days.
Defense Attorneys: Reputation Damaged
“They (the district attorney’s office) say they can’t prove that case. And here, we have no video and it was always shaky from the beginning. But, I’m assuming they believe they could prove it.” — Attorney Margarita Martinez-Baly
Blocks away at the office of Arambula’s defense attorney, Michael Aed said even a not guilty verdict damages his client.
“His reputation is in the toilet. It doesn’t matter what the verdict was in this case. He has to live with this for the rest of his life regardless of what the outcome was,” Aed said.
Aed said Arambula’s constituents will look at him differently from now on.
“For lack of better terms, he’s going to be wearing a scarlet letter for the rest of his political career, and his career as a physician, potentially. Wherever he goes, people are going look at him and make assumptions,” Aed said.
Arambula’s other attorney, Margarita Martinez-Baly, said the prosecution of the case was politically motivated. She compared it to the recent case of Fresno Unified trustee Terry Slatic, who was not prosecuted in a physical altercation with a student captured on security camera.
“They (the district attorney’s office) say they can’t prove that case. And here, we have no video and it was always shaky from the beginning. But, I’m assuming they believed they could prove it,” Martinez-Baly said.
Smittcamp: Defense ‘Circus’ Created Reasonable Doubt
“My reaction to the verdict is one of sadness for the child because she said on more than one occasion that her father bruised her temple,” said Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp.
“While I respect the jury’s verdict, it’s a sad day for all children who are forced to live in environments where they can be subject to physical injury.
“The circus created by the defense caused the jury to have enough reasonable doubt (for acquittal), but that doesn’t change the fact the child reiterated again and again that her father caused the injury.”
Smittcamp praised prosecutor Steve Wright for “being a warrior for justice in taking this case to trial. This 7-year-old’s voice had to be heard. She had a right to be heard.”
Outside the courthouse, Wright said, “I hope people realize that no matter who you are or what you do for a living, if you hurt a child we are going to do what we can to hold you accountable for it.”
Arambula on the Defense
“I hope people realize that no matter who you are or what you do for a living, if you hurt a child we are going to do what we can to hold you accountable for it.” — Prosecutor Steve Wright
Arambula took the stand Tuesday as the defense team’s last witness. The physician testified he had never struck his 7-year-old child before he spanked her on Dec. 9, 2018.
He testified that his daughters were fighting at bedtime and the 7-year-old’s younger sister, who is 6, was in tears. (Arambula and his wife, Elizabeth, have one other daughter, 3.) He said the older daughter was hopping from bed to bed in the room the girls share, and he caught her as she leaped off. He then held her close to try to calm her down, despite her flailing and yelling.
He testified that he tripped and fell into his daughter, but didn’t notice any bruising that night or the next morning when he took the two girls to school.
School officials noticed the bruise Dec. 10 when the girl complained about pain on her face. They called Child Protective Services, which contacted Fresno police.
CPS representatives and Fresno officers were talking to the girl when Elizabeth Arambula came to pick up the girls later that day. When the mother could not be united with her daughter, she called Arambula, who testified he came to the school immediately. There, he was taken into custody, booked at police headquarters, cited and released hours later.
CPS took custody of the three daughters, placing them with Joaquin Arambula’s parents, Juan (a former assemblyman) and Amy. They were returned to their parents two days later. CPS found inconclusive evidence that Arambula hit his oldest daughter.
Arambula’s two daughters, the alleged victim and the 6-year-old, testified against their father. The 7-year-old told the court she was fighting with her sister during bedtime, prompting Arambula to come to the girls’ room. Her father then “grasped” her by the head, she testified. She also said Arambula tripped and landed on her, with either instance possibly causing the bruise.
However, she did not testify that her father spanked her.
The girl’s testimony contradicted what she told police and Child Protective Service investigators the day after the incident. Then, she told them and school staff at Dailey Elementary Charter School that her father “slapped” and “hit” her.
The prosecution played video of the girl’s interview with MDIC, which specializes in speaking to young alleged victims. In the video, she wavered on her account of whether her father hit her.
In the courtroom, the girl testified she originally did not understand the term “grasped.”
The prosecution believes the girl was coached by family, which would explain her inconsistencies. In closing arguments, prosecutor Steve Wright asked jurors to pay attention to the girl’s initial statements and the video.
The defense said the alleged victim was prone to fantastical statements, influenced by fictional stories. One such story was “The Tales of Despereaux,” a popular children’s book her class studied last year. Themes from that story include wrongful accusation and a character struck in the ear by another.
Other theories presented as possible causes of the girl’s injury included roughhousing with a cousin the day before the Dec. 9 incident.
Members of Arambula’s family, including his wife, parents, and siblings, testified on the assemblyman’s behalf. As character witnesses, they described Arambula as a loving father and testified they had never seen an instance of abuse, let alone a spanking.
In an email statement, California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said, “[A] jury of peers found Joaquin Arambula not guilty of the accusations made against him. Having undergone this hardship, the Arambula family should be afforded the opportunity to heal and move forward.”