California juvenile court reform debate delays Maddy Middleton homicide case

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SANTA CRUZ — After more than five years, legal resolution in a case of a child’s murder that rocked the Santa Cruz community has made little forward progress.

On July 26, 2015, Adrian “A.J” Gonzalez, at the time 15 years old, was arrested and charged with the gruesome murder of his 8-year-old neighbor, Madyson “Maddy” Middleton. Maddy had gone missing a day earlier. Since that time, Gonzalez’s case has swung back and forth between juvenile and adult courts, caught in the wave of evolving state justice reforms, particularly those aimed at alleged juvenile offenders.

AJ Gonzalez, accused of killing 8-year-old Madyson Middleton five years ago, looks past District Attorney Jeff Rosell during a 2018 court hearing. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel file)

Among those trapped in limbo of the ongoing court process is Laura Jordan, Maddy’s mother. Jordan said this week that the extensive process has meant that there is no justice for Maddy yet, and “no rest for her families who feel stressed about having to stay abreast of all the happenings.”

Under the 2016 voter-approved state ballot initiative, Proposition 57, the ability of prosecutors to directly decide whether or not a juvenile case is fit for adult court was eliminated. Instead, the initiative turned power over to juvenile court judges. In Gonzalez’s case, a Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge considered the case in a nine-week process, Jordan said, and found Gonzalez fit for adult proceedings in October 2017.

“Not all 14- and 15-year-olds are the same,” Jordan said Friday. “There needs to be a distinction over which kind of crime. We sat through nine weeks and the juvenile judge said this is too heinous of a crime, too sophisticated, no remorse, he needs to be seen as an adult, tried in an adult court.”

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Gonzalez’s defense attorneys have argued in court and press interviews that Gonzalez is amenable to rehabilitation in the juvenile system.

Returned to adult court, Gonzalez was charged with six felonies, including murder with a special allegation of lying in wait, kidnapping, forcible rape and lewd acts with a child younger than 14 and transferred from juvenile hall to adult holding at the Santa Cruz County Jail.

However, before Gonzalez’s case could proceed to trial, state legislators in August 2018 passed Senate Bill 1391, which modifies the law to prevent anyone under the age of 16 accused of violent crimes such as murder and serious felonies from automatically going to trial as an adult in the justice system.

“What I have heard is the way SB 1391 is worded, at least the first few lines of it, it sounds like a really good thing for a lot of citizens reading it. It sounds like, oh, ok, this is good,” Jordan said. “But the further you read into it, that’s where it becomes kind of sneaky and you’re like, oh wait, it’s not actually a good law. You’ve gotta read the fine print.”

Leadership within the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office have joined a team of prosecutors throughout the state contending that …read more

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