By Danielle Silva
In closing arguments, the defense stated that the actions of the defendant were misinterpreted due to cultural differences and other surrounding factors. The defendant would be acquitted by the jury later that day.
Lucio Antonio Paniagua had been charged with three counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a child under the age of 14. On August 4, 2018, he had been accused of hugging and French-kissing an 11-year-old girl during a baby shower. This incident was claimed to have happened inside of a room where two other children were playing Fortnite. The girl talked with the children and an adult about what happened before being driven home. Later that day, Mr. Paniagua would be arrested by officers.
In the closing arguments of Mr. Paniagua’s trial, the prosecutor, Deanna Hays, argued against the discrepancies in the children’s testimonies. She stated the children did not have time to conspire and fabricate an allegation against Mr. Paniagua. There had been evidence that the girl had smelled of cologne and the children claimed to have seen the defendant inside of the room. The prosecution argued simply because children were giving testimonies did not mean they should be believed over adults. But, especially after Mr. Paniagua entered the room, what mattered was the three children were the main witnesses to what occurred.
The adults learned about the allegation afterward, when the girl had told them and had been visibly upset. The adults, who hadn’t expected something of this nature to occur, all focused on different things, including trying to comfort the girl by calling her a “hero” for protecting other children.
Ms. Hays argued that the defense would try to misdirect the case by pointing out the inconsistencies in the testimonies, claiming the police didn’t do a complete investigation, noting the defendant had been tested at low risk for child molestation, or arguing that Mr. Paniagua was a victim since he was beaten up because of the molestation allegation. She requested the jury find Mr. Paniagua guilty.
The defense, represented by Deputy Public Defender Monica Brushia, in their closing arguments emphasized cultural differences and how they could be misinterpreted. Mr. Paniagua had come from Mexico, spoke Spanish, has been married for 10 years, has never been in trouble, and acts very affectionately to his nieces. While he wanted children, he could never have any.
On Aug. 4, 2018, Mr. Paniagua had been invited to the baby shower by one of the hosts, and he brought his wife, sister-in-law, nieces, and brother-in-law. He had also been asked to bring in his karaoke machine for the backyard. Many children had been present at the party and most were out front in the bouncy house while the adults were situated in the backyard. The inside of the house was mostly empty, save for those going to the bathroom. Mr. Paniagua had asked the host for permission to use the restroom, returning soon after to get his keys to use his home bathroom since the line at the party was too long.
While inside the house, the defendant was only there briefly. The testimony of the child stated the man who touched her had come into the room multiple times, which could not be supported by the amount of time Paniagua had been gone from the backyard.
The defense also pointed to the testimony of two doctors: a doctor who worked at free clinics for molested children and adults, and a doctor who worked for prosecutors in child molestation cases. Both had noted grooming and seclusion to be routine acts for child molesters, but the girl’s testimony stated she had not seen the man before that day and she had been in the room with two other children. If the man had beckoned to the juvenile, the kitchen would have been a more secluded location.
In considering the room, the door was right next to the couch where the children were apparently playing Fortnite. They would have seen the defendant coming into the room as it would have been impossible not to notice him. One of the children had also testified to not seeing him come into the room. The girl told the other children what had happened, stating she had been uncomfortable. Her friend shared she should tell an adult.
After telling the adult, the defense argued the girl received lots of positive attention, being called a hero and being comforted by her parents and sister. After allegedly being touched and kissed the first time, she took her turn playing Fortnite and did not show signs of trauma. It wouldn’t be until later she that told an adult. During her testimony for the trial, she had been wearing a black and grey vest and a red t-shirt, similar to several individuals in the audience who had come to listen to her testimony. During her testimony, she noted she wanted to put the man in jail for the rest of his life. However, the girl also stated she did not see the man from that day in the courtroom.
In considering the verdict, the defense encouraged the jury to look at the evidence and the elements required for a guilty verdict. The DNA evidence didn’t prove Mr. Paniagua touched or kissed the girl and there were no signs of wrongful intent with touching, such as sexual gratification. The defendant’s family had testified that Mr. Paniagua often hugged and kissed his nieces in a familial way. It could have been the case the defendant had gone to the girl but had hugged and kissed her on the cheek, which could potentially have been exaggerated as perhaps the girl didn’t like being touched.
The defense made note of the juvenile’s autism, stating that the cognitive differences had not been explored and she had an independent education plan. Additionally, she had problems with regular social settings. While the defense understood the difference between the words of a child against the words of a suspect to be a difficult balance, if a child doesn’t know how to process what happened they may misinterpret some memories. The defense reminded the jury if there was reasonable doubt, they should find the defendant not guilty.
In a brief rebuttal, the prosecution shared that the girl had experienced trauma, as she had stated she had been uncomfortable and crying. While any child may like positive attention, the allegation of the child held a “ring of truth,” where the prosecution sees certain phrases that could not be fabricated. In the girl’s testimony, she stated repeatedly, “His tongue touched my tongue.” The Multi-Disciplinary Interview the juvenile had gone through also addressed the girl’s cognitive differences, allowing her space to not only answer questions but to draw pictures and use dolls. The prosecution argued the girl did not make any of the allegations up and did not misunderstand.
However, as noted, the jury later that day acquitted the defendant of all charges.