Sunday Commentary: Classic Wrongful Conviction Problems Punctuate Gonzalez Conviction


When we talked with Attorney Keith Staten, who represented Justin Gonzalez in the Case Del Sol murder case that ended with Mr. Gonzalez’ conviction for second degree murder, Mr. Staten was legitimately baffled by the jury verdict.

“I’m very curious about what the jury saw as the reasoning behind finding a guilty verdict here,” he said.  “Only because we feel the evidence would have allowed any reasonable person to conclude that he did (not) aid and abet – we know he didn’t kill the guy, but we believe the evidence shows that he did not aid and abet in this killing.

“In fact,” he went further, “he was trying to prevent the actions of his co-defendant.  We thought that came out in the trial.”

In October of 2016, the Vanguard held a discussion forum on Wrongful Convictions,  an event we plan to reprise on January 24 at 6 pm at Woodstock’s Pizza – since the founding of the Innocence Project in 1992 and the creation of the National Registry on Exonerations, we have been able to collect data on wrongful convictions, including the causes.

The National Registry on Exonerations is closing in on 2000 exonerated, and they have identified the following as being among the most common reasons for wrongful convictions: false confession, eyewitnesses misidentification, junk science, government misconduct, snitches, and ineffective counsel.

In the case against Justin Gonzalez, we see two and possibly three factors at play: eyewitness misidentification and snitches, with the possibility of governmental misconduct potentially underlying both.

The problem in this case is that, while we have a video that puts Justin Gonzalez in the area with the person actually believed to have carried out the stabbing, we don’t know what happened after he exits the sight of the video.  What we do know is that everyone was running and Mr. Gonzalez arrived at the key intersection 20 seconds behind the others.

A key question is whether he ever got to the scene of the crime.  Some close to Mr. Gonzalez don’t believe he did, and that he left the scene before the murder occurred.

“That’s where it’s a mystery to me,” Mr. Staten acknowledged.  “The video doesn’t answer it, but the police even said, you see shadowy figures right at that intersection when the van comes through – and the only people it could be are Amanda, Aradoz, or Justin.”

Mr. Staten believes that it was closer to what Ruby Aradoz said at the grand jury (as opposed to the trial) – “that he may have standing around her, by her, but he never hurt the man, he never did anything to him.

“What happens (in the twenty seconds) unfortunately we don’t have a camera,” the attorney told the Vanguard.  “But what we do have is enough circumstantial evidence that goes both ways at least – that should lead the jury towards innocence.”

Bolstering the case for Mr. Gonzalez is the complete lack of physical evidence, according to his attorney, “no blood, no sweat, no gravel” and he said, “nothing in his clothing.”

Which is interesting because, according to the DA, “According to surveillance video and witnesses, Mr. Velazquez began chasing Mr. Antonio while carrying a large knife.  Mr. Velazquez was closely followed by his fellow gang member, Mr. Gonzalez.  After cornering Mr. Antonio less than 20 feet from his front door, Mr. Velazquez waited until Mr. Gonzalez restrained Mr. Antonio before delivering two fatal stab wounds to the left side of Mr. Antonio’s torso.”

So how was Mr. Gonzalez, as the DA claims, restraining Mr. Antonio when he was stabbed, and not end up with blood on him or his clothing?

To fill in the gaps in the case, the DA called upon two witnesses, both with huge credibility problems.

The problem with Ponce Perez is that she was able to identify the other defendants who were at the scene including Mr. Velazquez – but not Mr. Gonzalez.

As Mr. Staten described:  “Ponce Perez cannot identify my guy in a field show up, but she identifies Velazquez and the girls in the van. Can’t identify Justin.”

He said, “Try a photo line up – hours later, can’t identify Justin as being present – which was consistent with Hernandez, which was consistent with Aradoz and her grand jury testimony.”

Justin Gonzalez came out “and she couldn’t pick him out.  She couldn’t say he was there.  She picked Yar Sanchez and said he was there, when the police didn’t believe he was there.

“With her it was an identification issue,” he said.  “Hours later they used a photo line up and she still says the other guy is not here.  It’s not until court where she stands up and wants to point him out.

“I think she was contradicted by Mr. Hernandez who says that two guys run into each other, tackle, fall, one guy gets up and stabs the other,” he added.

So you have a classic case where the eyewitness twice as much closer to the murder was not able to identify Justin Gonzalez, but suddenly at trial she stands up and points him out to the jury?  That’s not credible, based on everything we know with problems of eyewitness identification, and the jury should have disregarded this testimony.

The problem with Ruby Aradoz is that she herself was a participant in the case – in fact, according to Mr. Staten, she precipitated the situation.  But she cuts a deal to allow her to walk, and all of a sudden she completely changes her testimony.

During her grand jury testimony, she said of Mr. Gonzalez, “he must have been behind her – she didn’t see him do anything.”

Staten said, “She had black outs.”  And, “But now in trial, they offer her a very very very sweet deal, in the middle of trial, and now Justin has a knife, is threatening her, standing over the guy, punching the guy, beating him, holding him… From the woman who you see on the video who starts this all.”

Basically, she testified and her charges were dismissed, “so she suffers no criminal consequences whatsoever – from the individual who literally started this.

“She had the perfect opportunity to stop this, because she knew she was going after the wrong guy,” he said.  “He (the victim) literally gave her his shirt.  That might have been her level of alcohol, she was so drunk, she didn’t know what she was doing.”

A big question is, why did the jury end up believing her?

“Why would you believe her under those circumstances?” he asked.  “The lies before, the lies after.  Grand jury testimony, she was supposedly sober and would have remembered things better then than now.”

But he said, “She sat through the trial, she saw what the DA needed, and took a deal that nobody could refuse.”  He added, “The credibility of her is what I question.  I don’t know why the jury would find her credible.”

He added that “we thought she was so incredible to believe, from everything that had happened to her, that I could not see how a reasonable person found him guilty.”

So what we have is that the physical evidence in this trial was incomplete against Justin Gonzalez.  The video appears to show that Mr. Gonzalez was 20 seconds behind the rest of the group and, if he got to the scene of the murder, it points away from him being a participant.

Prior to trial, Ms. Ponce Perez had never identified Justin Gonzalez as being at the scene – now suddenly she does.  And Ms. Aradoz, after taking the deal, testified that Justin was not only there, but that he had a knife – when there is no evidence of that at all and there was no blood or soil found on his clothing or his body.

The most incredible part is that the jury bought into this case, holes and all – despite all that we know about the fallibility of eyewitness identification and the unreliability of using snitches.

We cannot let the DA off the hook here either – DA Jeff Reisig tried this case himself with the help of Deputy DA Michael Vroman.  He is the one that cut the deal with Ms. Aradoz, and who put her incredible testimony before a jury.

As Mr. Staten acknowledged to the Vanguard, we don’t have definitive proof based on the evidence that Mr. Gonzalez was innocent, but the evidence presented at trial certainly does not point toward guilt in this case – in fact, if anything, there is no credible evidence that he was anywhere close to the murder when it actually occurred.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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