Commentary: Did the DA Commit Prosecutorial Misconduct in Justin Gonzalez Trial?

In early December, a Yolo County jury convicted Alexis Velazquez of first degree murder and Justin Gonzalez of second degree murder in the stabbing death of Ronald Antonio in Woodland last year.  When the Vanguard spoke to defense attorney Keith Staten just over a week later, he was stunned by the jury verdict.

“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,” Mr. Staten told the Vanguard.

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

The bottom line for Keith Staten is that the testimony of defendant-turned-witness Ruby Aradoz “is not truthful.”  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.”

Last week, Mr. Staten filed a motion arguing that part of the problem was that DA Jeff Reisig and his co-counsel in the trial, Deputy DA Michael Vroman, violated the law under Brady v. Maryland
by withholding evidence from the defense that was exculpatory.

There were lots of problems in the conviction of Justin Gonzalez including a witness, too afraid to come forward, who has said that Mr. Gonzalez was never there at the scene of the actual stabbing.  That is what former co-defendant Rudy Aradoz testified to during the secret grand jury hearing last year.

But once she cut a deal to walk away a free person, she flipped her testimony.

Mr. Staten told the Vanguard, “In her previous testimony and statements, Ms. Aradoz never implicated Mr. Gonzalez. She testified at the grand jury proceeding that she was cut by an unknown male before the victim was murdered.”

She also “testified that she did not remember seeing Justin Gonzalez ‘hit the guy or anything’ when describing Mr. Gonzalez in relation to the victim.  She stated that she did not remember exactly where Mr. Gonzalez was in relation to what was going on when the victim was stabbed.”

But she cut a deal with the prosecution for basically full immunity.  She would have all charges dropped against her and, instead of facing life in prison, she was allowed to walk.  Couple that with her change in testimony and the convenient memory blocks she testified to, she should have been easily dismissed by the jury as a credible witness.  Except that she was not.

As attorney Keith Staten put it, “I find it hard (to see) how a reasonable person could conclude that he aided and abetted.”  He added, “In particular, when Aradoz went so sideways on her story.”

He added, “The DA never argued that Justin had a knife – never could say that, not until she got up and all of a sudden the striations on the body were caused by a knife.”

This issue, he said, never came up until Ms. Aradoz’s testimony and “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.”

But does this go beyond unreliable testimony from someone who has cut a deal with the prosecution?  Mr. Staten believes yes.

Mr. Staten was told by Deputy DA Michael Vroman that her “testimony would align with her prior sworn grand jury testimony as well as previous statements given to law enforcement.”

Argues Mr. Staten: “With this assurance, Mr. Staten did not obtain a statement from Ms. Aradoz after she had accepted the plea deal.”

That proved to be a mistake for the defense.  Is that enough of a misrepresentation to constitute a Brady violation and thus prosecutorial misconduct?

As Mr. Staten argues: “This misrepresentation, whether negligent or intentional, materially affected Mr. Gonzalez’s due process rights. This statement and information was clearly relevant for impeachment, and should have been disclosed before Ms. Aradoz took the stand on December 4, 2017.

“It is undisputed that Ms. Aradoz’s new statement to law enforcement was suppressed by the prosecution,” he writes.  “The suppression of Ms. Aradoz’s statement to law enforcement severely prejudiced Mr. Gonzalez’s ability to adequately defend himself.”

The State of California has taken some steps to crack down on prosecutorial misconduct, including Brady violations.

Back in October 2016, Governor  Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that makes prosecutors, who alter or intentionally withhold evidence from the defense, able to be punished by up to three years in prison.  Prior to this law, the penalty was just a misdemeanor.

“When a prosecutor intentionally withholds exculpatory evidence, an unknowing and innocent defendant can be convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated for a long time,” California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a group of criminal defense lawyers that supported the bill, told the Los Angeles Times. “These bad-acting prosecutors rarely, if ever, face any actual consequences for their actions.”

But part of the problem, as the 2010 study by the Innocence Project found, is that even when judges rule that Brady violations occurred, they often hold that the errors were harmless and thus they do not throw out jury verdicts on their basis.

Even in cases where the errors were found to be harmless, the Innocence Project study argued that “harmless error cases may have involved infractions just as serious — and in some cases identical to” those in harmful error cases.

They argue further that “the egregiousness of a prosecutor’s misconduct does not determine the harmfulness of the error; the issue for harmless error review is whether despite the misconduct, the defendant received a fair trial. That means that very serious misconduct can be deemed harmless.”

The Innocence Project report found, “Applying the harmless error doctrine, an appellate court may affirm a conviction even where prosecutorial misconduct or other errors occurred, if it believes that the error did not affect the outcome of the case.  Only 20 percent of the prosecutorial misconduct cases were able to surmount this high hurdle. While this doctrine was originally intended to eliminate the need for multiple retrials for small technical mistakes, it has evolved to the point that it is now applied even to constitutional violations.”

Given that the verdict in the Justin Gonzalez matter hinged on the testimony of Ms. Aradoz, one might think that prosecutorial misconduct, if it indeed occurred, would be sufficient to a warrant a new trial, but the past results suggest otherwise.

Clearly the defense was blindsided, and more importantly misled by the deputy DA.  But will that be enough?  We find out on Friday when Judge Maguire hears the arguments by both sides.

—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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