SANTA CRUZ — Adrian “A.J.” Gonzalez, now 21, was arrested and charged with murder as a 15-year-old. The California Supreme Court will soon weigh a case with implications for whether Gonzalez and others like him should face the adult or juvenile justice system.
Oral arguments begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday in San Francisco in the “O.G. vs The Superior Court of Ventura County” case, challenging the constitutionality of 2018’s Senate Bill 1391.
Gonzalez’s case has lingered in legal limbo for years due to several legal reforms passed subsequent to the 2015 killing of Madyson Middleton. Known to family as “Maddy,” the 8-year-old girl was found strangled beneath piled cardboard in a recycling container at the Tannery Arts Center Lofts, where she lived with her mother.
SB 1391, the state’s juvenile justice reform bill — amending voter-approved Proposition 57 from two years earlier — went into effect in January 2019 and eliminated the possibility of a case’s transfer to adult criminal court for crimes committed when a minor was 14 or 15 years old.
Interviewed by the Sentinel in August, Maddy’s mother Laura Jordan said that the lingering legal proceedings offered her family members no rest. Jordan said at the time that while the legislation may appear on its face as a positive reform, the problem was in “the fine print” that did not distinguish between individual circumstances — including murder allegations — for each case.
“They didn’t rob a convenience store. They weren’t caught with an eighth- or a half-ounce of marijuana,” Jordan told the Sentinel. “They viciously murdered and raped, in my case, it was an 8-year-old girl … Who cares if he’s 15 or 40.”
Released as 25?
In a letter distributed Friday morning to the news media and signed by Jordan, Maddy’s father Michael Middleton and Maddy’s parental grandparents, the family raised alarms that their daughter’s alleged killer could be released from custody by age 25, were Gonzalez tried within the juvenile justice court system. Existing state law empowers the Department of Juvenile Justice to extend the detention of juvenile offenders beyond age 25, should they not be amenable to behavioral treatment programs.
“We are Madyson’s family,” the letter states. “We cannot believe that the individual who planned to kidnap, rape and murder our Maddy could soon be walking out of jail because State Senator Holly Mitchell and Ricardo Lara chose a one-size-fits-all approach to juvenile justice. This is wrong and lets an intentional, vicious murderer walk free.”
After Prop. 57 was enacted, judges, rather than criminal prosecutors, were tasked with determining if 14- or 15-year-olds accused of serious charges should face criminal or juvenile proceedings.
Under that law, in the fall of 2017, Gonzalez underwent a nine-week hearing before a Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge, who determined that the then 18-year-old was fit for adult proceedings. Gonzalez was transferred from juvenile hall to adult holding at the Santa Cruz County Jail and 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.
The family’s letter commented that such decision’s in a judge’s hands was “a fair and just manner to determine the fate of a juvenile who would commit such a heinous crime.”
In the wake of SB 1391’s passage, Gonzalez’s case again was challenged, with Judge John Salazar ultimately ruling in May 2019 that the new law was unconstitutional. Gonzalez’s defense attorneys appealed Salazar’s decision to the Sixth District Court of Appeal in San Jose, where “A.G. v. Superior Court” remains pending.