COURT WATCH: Judge Permits Partial Gang Evidence in Upcoming Justin Gonzalez Retrial

By Rena Abdusalam 

WOODLAND, CA – A motion in limine hearing was held for Justin Gonzalez in Yolo County Superior Court last week, focusing on the admissibility of Gonzalez’s gang activity evidence in his upcoming jury trial that begins Monday, Oct. 16.

The judge, after long arguments, sided in part with the defense and in part with the prosecution.

In 2017, Justin Gonzalez was found guilty of second-degree murder for his part in the stabbings that occurred at Woodland’s Casa del Sol the year prior.

Throughout the course of his case, Gonzalez has maintained his innocence and, due to changes in state law, he was given the opportunity for a retrial.

Before Gonzalez’s retrial, Deputy Public Defender Ron Johnson requested a motion in limine, which are hearings that set parameters for what evidence is allowed to be introduced at trial.

Because of the passage of Assembly Bill 333 in California, which redefined and attempted to reduce the damage of gang enhancements, DPD Johnson is now attempting to not allow any evidence of gang activity for Gonzalez’s retrial.

“There should be extremely limited gang evidence following AB 333 as to Mr. Gonzalez because what essentially would be happening in Mr. Gonzalez’s case is using prejudicial evidence to bolster a relatively weak case against Mr. Gonzalez,” said DPD Johnson.

To demonstrate his reasoning, DPD Johnson noted evidence he said “undermines” the prosecution’s theory, including a video and DNA evidence from the shirt Gonzalez wore on the night of the stabbing.

DPD Johnson said DNA found was only from Gonzalez, and not from the victim, which contradicts the prosecution’s theory suggesting Gonzalez bear hugged the victim during the killing. DPD Johnson also pointed out that there was a lack of blood on the accused’s shirt.

“The Court should not allow (the prosecution) to try to prejudice a jury by introducing highly inflammatory gang evidence against Mr. Gonzalez,” declared the DPD, adding that if some gang evidence were to be allowed, it should only include the fact Gonzalez was indeed a gang member, but anything further would inflame the jury.

However, Deputy District Attorney Robin Johnson replied AB 333 has not changed anything for Gonzalez’s case.

Because AB 333 focuses on gang enhancements, DDA Johnson said a great deal of evidence would have to be introduced for Gonzalez’s enhancements and other charges, which is unrelated to the prosecution’s argument and not part of evidence for a gang-related motive.

DDA Johnson also defended the prosecution’s introduction of evidence for the trial that includes Gonzalez’s associations with the Woodland gang, Varrio Bosque Norteño (VBN), and testimony from a gang expert on what certain terms meant for the gang, and the gang culture.

Judge Samuel McAdam asked DDA Johnson if there was another method to introduce gang evidence without an expert, such as through witnesses, to which DDA Johnson replied that it is important for the expert to be able to explain gang interactions and details of the stabbing.

After DDA Johnson’s response, Judge McAdam said the court would allow evidence related to the Casa del Sol stabbing, meanings behind certain terms, the gang member status of Gonzalez, and some of expert testimony the DDA requested.

“I think this is the framework the court is interested in,” said Judge McAdam. “I want to stay focused on what happened at Casa del Sol that night.”

Agreeing with DDA Johnson, Judge McAdam stated AB 333 does not “preclude entirely the admissibility of gang evidence” and the court wants to “stick principally with generalized expert testimony on what was happening” during the Casa del Sol event.

Judge McAdam, however, did agree with DPD Johnson’s argument of not permitting other highly prejudicial information regarding Gonzalez’s gang and gang enhancements in general.

“I do think the jury is allowed to be told the nature of the conflict that was going on at the trailer park that night,” continued Judge McAdam.

When asked about his opinion on Judge McAdam’s framework, DPD Johnson acknowledged that it was reasonable to not allow any other evidence besides what the scope permits.

“The court is going to admit gang evidence as I outlined earlier and I think the prosecution has a full argument to make that there was gang activity going on. I think we narrowed the scope of the admissible evidence, but the gang evidence will come in,” ruled Judge McAdam. “I’ve come up with this balance and I’m confident that this is a good approach.”

About The Author

Rena is a junior at Davis Senior High School and is currently exploring her interest in the criminal justice system. After high school, she plans to attend college and continue to pursue a career in law.

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