By David M. Greenwald and Robert J. Hansen
Woodland, CA – In 2018 Justin Gonzalez was sentenced to 70 years in prison, after having been convicted with Alexis Velazquez in the murder of Ronald Antonio. On Tuesday, the Third Appellate District Court reversed his murder conviction and remanded the case back to Yolo County where DA Jeff Reisig, who was co-counsel on the original case, will have to decide whether to retry him.
Gonzalez has always maintained his innocence in the case, and in addressing the court offered his “deepest condolences” to the family of the victim Ronald Antonio, whom he called an innocent victim. But he said, “I had no part in it.”
He told the family, “I know that Ronald losing his innocent life was unjust, but my wrongful conviction is also unjust.”
Upon sentencing, Judge Daniel P. Maguire acknowledged he was troubled that he was holding a CD with a recording that the defense did not have access to during the trial. However, he ended up ruling that, given the thoroughness on which the defense was able to discredit witness Ruby Aradoz even without this key evidence, even if the defense had had access to the recording, it would have made no difference in the outcome in the trial.
As it turns out, the appellate court ruling did not relate to the failure to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence but rather an error in instructing the jury on natural and probable consequences.
“We conclude the error in instructing the jury on the natural and probable consequences doctrine is not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and the verdict against Gonzalez must be reversed,” the Court’s opinion said.
Charles Gonzalez, Justin’s father, was overwhelmed with happiness when he heard the news his son’s murder conviction was reversed.
“I’m totally excited. This has been almost six years we’ve been fighting for Justin, we knew all along he was innocent,” Gonzalez said. “We kept our faith and I just can’t wait to get my son home.”
Gonzalez, 56, said Yolo County District Attorney Reisig coerced witnesses into victims and co-defendants into witnesses to get a murder conviction.
“We knew Jeff Reisig pulled his little strings to make this a conviction. He did everything he possibly could by cheating and lying,” Gonzalez said.
Charles said he has not seen his son in over two and a half years.
“As a family, the first thing we want to do is go to church together,” Gonzalez said. “We got all kinds of plans. He wants to go fishing.”
The jury found Gonzalez guilty of second degree murder and Velazquez guilty of first degree murder. Velazquez was sentenced to life without parole.
Since the 2018 sentencing, state law has changed. Gonzalez in his appellate brief argued that SB 1437, which adopted section 1170.95 eliminating the natural and probable consequences doctrine as it relates to murder, is retroactive to his case and requires reversal of his murder conviction.
Gonzalez argues that SB 775 “also applies retroactively and permits him to raise the elimination of the natural and probable consequences doctrine on direct appeal.”
The Attorney General conceded both apply retroactively, but “argues that based on the record Gonzalez is not entitled to reversal.”
The appellate court disagreed. “Therefore, we reverse Gonzalez’s conviction for second degree murder.”
As the court notes, the new law “bars conviction for second degree murder under a natural and probable consequences theory.”
The trial court instructed the jury that “Gonzalez could be convicted of second degree murder under a theory of natural and probable consequences, if the jury decided he was guilty of assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury.”
Here the court cites the closing argument of Deputy DA Michael Vroman, who was co-counsel to DA Jeff Reisig in prosecuting the case, who argued:
“The other way you can get to second-degree murder on Mr. Gonzalez — and there’s actually two other ways, but I’m just going to talk about one for purposes of this rebuttal — and that’s the theory of natural and probable consequence [sic]. And the way the law finds it is this: If you find that Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Velazquez were out that night engaging in what’s called an assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury, they were engaged in conduct that was likely to produce an assaultive great bodily injury on somebody. And as a result of that assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury, Alexis Velazquez actually killed somebody, in this case Mr. Antonio. Mr. Gonzalez is guilty of second-degree murder if you believe that that murder that Mr. Velazquez committed was a natural and probable consequence of the assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury.”
The jury found Gonzalez not guilty of first degree murder and guilty of second degree murder.
Further, the court notes that the “jury instructions do not establish that jurors did not convict Gonzalez under the theory of natural and probable consequences. To the contrary, the instructions informed the jury that it could convict Gonzalez of second degree murder if one juror embraced the natural and probable consequences theory, while the other 11 were convinced he was guilty under the other two theories.”
Because the changes in the law mandated a reversal in this case, the court ended up not ruling on the issue of the Brady violation. Last October, Janet Gray appearing before the appellate court, pointing to “failure to turn over a recording of a key witness prep as she was heading to the stand.”
She noted, “The recording was never discovered by the prosecutor but sent to counsel after the verdict.”
She argued, “In that recording, the lead investigator, working for the prosecutor is caught coaching the key witness, not to mention that her memory, what she had previously described as a drunken blackout, was impacted by sitting in court for three weeks, while she had—prior to her deal with the prosecutor—sat in court the entire time while the state presented his case, including several viewings of a surveillance video and the various witnesses.”
Aradoz went from being a co-defendant to star witness for prosecution. She delivered the key testimony linking Gonzalez to the murder. But if there is a new trial, the defense will have new ammunition, not just the inconsistent testimony of Aradoz to impeach the prosecution’s case.
In the meantime, Charles Gonzalez is hoping Justin will get a chance for a fresh start.
Gonzalez told the Vanguard that he wants to take Justin to see his son, who was born after he went to prison, for the first time.
“Justin has never had a chance to hold his son. When he was incarcerated his little boy was still not born yet,” Gonzalez said. “This is an amazing thing for us.”
Charles said he, his family, and many others have fought hard to get Justin’s conviction overturned.
“God has blessed us. He’s a very spiritual young man, when he gets out he wants to right away get into college and get his education and wants to start a ministry,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said something needs to happen about prosecutors that pursue convictions at the expense of justice.
“It’s not fair for a young man to go to prison and lose six years of his life for something he didn’t do,” Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t need to happen and needs to stop happening to people.”
The Court ruled that the People, if they so choose, can retry Gonzalez on Count 1 within the time limit prescribed by law.
If the People choose not to retry, the trial court is directed to resentence Gonzalez on Count 2.
The Yolo District Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.