Commentary: Justin Gonzalez Acquitted after Seven Years, Walks Out a Free Man

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Woodland, CA – When Justin Gonzalez was convicted in 2017 and sentenced to 70 years to life by Judge Dan Maguire in 2018, Maguire acknowledged that 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 that it would have made no difference in the outcome.

On that day, I sat in the courtroom believing that an innocent man had been wrongly convicted.  It was not my first rodeo with Gonzalez.  He had gone through four trials starting in 2013 for a supposed gang robbery that had been trumped up beyond belief and it was only his misfortune of not being able to leave Yolo at that time that got him caught up in this mess.

Upon being sentenced, Justin Gonzalez addressed the court and “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.”

As fate would have it, Justin Gonzalez would get another day in court, and this time, defended brilliantly by Deputy Public Defender Ron Johnson, they left no doubt.

His road back started when the appellate court threw out his sentence as it was based on natural and probable consequences.  Thanks to changes in the state law, the appellate court agreed that SB 1437, which eliminated the natural and probable consequences doctrine as it relates to murder, was retroactive to his case and required reversal of his murder conviction.

As did SB 775.

As the court noted, the new law “bars conviction for second degree murder under a natural and probable consequences theory.”

That got Gonzalez a new trial and, this time, he would be tried without Alexis Velasquez and with Deputy DA Robin Johnson forced to argue direct aiding and abetting.

It didn’t go well for her.

On Monday, Ron Johnson motioned for a directed verdict based on insufficiency of the evidence.  Usually it is a non-starter.  This time, Judge McAdam actually had to ponder it before deciding he would allow the jury to decide and figure out what to do later if need be.

The problems for the prosecutor were myriad—even beyond a slew of uncooperative witnesses, which frankly plagued both sides.

The two key witnesses still included Aradoz, who began as a co-defendant in the first trial and turned state’s evidence.  But her testimony this time was hardly more credible from before.  Her story changed too many times to be credible.  She was drunk and only remembered selectively, and Ron Johnson was able to pull out damning statements she made to investigator Pimentel that suggested her memory was being enhanced by watching testimony—and enhanced is perhaps a charitable description.

More credible was Raquel Ponce-Perez.  She probably sincerely believed what she testified too, although Ron Johnson was able to show it being variable.

The big problem was that it really did not comport with the video evidence.

The video evidence was a problem for the prosecution.  It showed Justin Gonzalez a full 20 seconds behind Velasquez when the attack occurred.

For a long time it seemed that the video evidence, along with the conflicting eyewitness testimony, would have to be enough.

But a few weeks before the trial, the defense—at the request of Ron Johnson—asked that the white T-shirt be tested for DNA.  The DNA showed evidence that it was worn by Justin Gonzalez, it had DNA from his girlfriend, but nothing from the victim.

No blood.  And, just as importantly, no sweat.  Given that the testimony was a “bear hug” by Gonzalez while Velasquez stabbed the victim, and the victim had been running for his life shirtless, it seemed implausible.

So implausible that Robin Johnson attempted to concoct an ad hoc theory—it wasn’t the shirt worn by Gonzalez that night.

That seemed too ad hoc.  Too convenient.  Ron Johnson ridiculed her theories as “wackadoo” and noted that they were fitting the evidence to their theory rather than fitting the theory to the evidence.

Indeed, at times it seemed like the DDA was arguing for reasonable possibility rather than proving beyond a reasonable doubt.  Other times, it felt like Robin Johnson was just going through the motions.

When she presented the argument to Judge Sam McAdam, Ron Johnson countered that it seemed more likely the white shirt, the only one found and lying by the door, was the one in question.  McAdam noted that the defense had the stronger argument.

Ron Johnson told the jury during closing on Tuesday that he never would have run the test unless he was certain that there would be no DNA on the shirt.  Instead, he would have argued that the state failed to test to the shirt and would have questioned why that was the case.

In fact, throughout, Johnson argued that it was his belief that his client was not only not guilty, but in fact, innocent of the charges.

Ultimately, the jury only had to find that the state didn’t meet its burden of proving the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.  In this case, there were massive doubts.

The doubts were so loud there were a number of times where it seemed like the state should have conceded the point or that the judge should have stepped in to end things.

It didn’t happen that way and ultimately the jury made the right decision—and did so fairly quickly.

Judge McAdam told Gonzalez he was free to leave the court, a free man.  It was a moment you read about.  Johnson hugging his client.  The family in tears of joy and a chance for Justin Gonzalez to get another lease on life.

In the end, one must feel sympathy for the family of Ronald Antonio—he did nothing to deserve getting caught up in this and having his life tragically and violently ended.  But the person responsible for that is in prison.

Throughout the trial, it was clear that not only did Justin Gonzalez not participate in the murder, at several points in time, he intervened to try to get Velazquez to back down—ultimately to no avail.

Why the DA was bent on pursuing Gonzalez—twice—we will probably never know.  And in so doing, they ignored other more obvious targets like Ruby Aradoz.

Justice was ultimately served but not until Justin Gonzalez served seven years on his 70-year-to-life sentence.

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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