Quick Take:

The California Supreme Court’s ruling sets the stage for Adrian Gonzalez to be released within four years, even if convicted. Says the late girl’s family: ‘For us, the worst has already happened. We will now see where this path leads.’

The California Supreme Court on Thursday morning issued a ruling that’s expected to allow Adrian Jerry Gonzalez — the accused killer of 8-year-old Madyson Middleton — to walk free by age 25, even if he’s convicted of murder, rape, kidnapping and other crimes.

Madyson’s parents and paternal grandparents called the decision “absolutely disappointing,” noting that “No punishment can ever undo what was done or bring our beloved Maddy back to us. However, at the very least, it is our hope that this act does not happen again.”

Given that Gonzalez, now 21, was a juvenile when he was accused of committing the crime, his lead defense attorney said the ruling reinforces a “good public policy” of allowing young people to rehabilitate themselves rather than be handed adult prison terms.

Gonzalez was 15 when Madyson was killed at the Tannery Arts Center where she lived. Prosecutors charged Gonzalez with luring her into an apartment before sexually assaulting and killing her on July 25, 2015. He confessed to the crime shortly thereafter, prosecutors say.

The circumstances of the crime sent waves of shock far beyond the tight-knit housing complex, which also serves as a hub for the Santa Cruz arts scene.

Gonzalez’s prosecution has dragged on for years over the question of whether he should be tried as a juvenile or adult. Most recently it has been ice pending the outcome of another case, this one in Ventura County, that challenged the constitutionality of a 2016 state law. The law, Senate Bill 1391, barred the prosecution of teens under the age of 16 as adults.

In December, the California Supreme Court heard arguments in that case, “O.G. v. Supreme Court of Ventura County.” Justices were tasked with weighing whether SB 1391 violated changes to the California constitution as approved under Prop. 57, which shifted the onus of deciding whether to charge teens as adults from prosecutors to judges.

On Thursday, the court released its opinion — unanimously upholding SB 1391 and its ban on the adult prosecutions of teens 15 and under.

“While barring the transfer of 14 and 15 year olds to adult court is a change from Proposition 57’s statutory provisions, that change is what makes Senate Bill 1391 an amendment to Proposition 57,” the court wrote in a 31-page opinion. “The amendment is fully consistent with and furthers Proposition 57’s fundamental purposes of promoting rehabilitation of youthful offenders and reducing the prison population.”

The O.G. ruling means that, if Gonzalez is convicted, he would “age out” of juvenile detention and be released by age 25 — in about four years — unless determined by a judge to present a serious threat to public safety.

Prosecutor: ‘Travesty of justice’

Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeff Rosell said his office is “extremely disappointed” by the high court’s ruling.

“I think it’s likely he will be out at 25,” Rosell told Lookout. “That’s what I think. And I think it’s an absolute travesty of justice, and I think it’s completely unsafe for the community.”

“I have spoken to some of the family members and they are absolutely devastated by the decision,” Rosell added. “I understand that some juvenile reform is necessary. But this one-size-fits-all legislation is absolutely inappropriate, and it overreaches in many ways, and compromises public safety.”

Rosell cited the gut-wrenching circumstances of the murder and detailed Gonzalez’s alleged premeditation of the crime, as well his alleged efforts to cover it up and involve himself “without any remorse” in the frantic search for Madyson after she was reported missing.

Those circumstances he said, make it “absolutely inappropriate for somebody in that position to be released at the age of 25, which as a practical matter is what will happen.”

The Middleton family echoed Rosell’s concern Thursday. The alleged level of sophistication, manipulation and planning shown in the crime and attempted cover-up show “all of the characteristics of a psychopathic killer, who needs to be kept away from our children and society,” the family said, adding that the juvenile justice system is not properly equipped to deal with a person with those traits.

Defense attorney: ‘Good public policy’

Responding to the decision, Gonzalez’s lead defense attorney, Larry Biggam, called SB 1391 “good public policy.”

“It promotes public safety and is based on science,” Biggam said in an email to Lookout. “Kids who commit serious crimes and get treatment behave better when released from custody than kids who don’t receive treatment.”

Biggam also highlighted the fact that release at age 25 is not guaranteed for juvenile offenders. The Department of Juvenile Justice and prosecutors are able to petition the court to extend incarceration in two-year intervals if they believe an offender poses a serious public-safety threat, he said.

Rosell puts little stock in that process, which he said is rare and must be initiated by the DJJ — and currently in the process of being dissolved — not prosecutors.

Regardless, Biggam contends his client already has demonstrated he is a candidate for rehabilitation, and — until being transferred to the county jail — was responding well to treatment for mental health issues.

“He had never received treatment before this arrest,” Biggam said in an email. Once available in juvenile hall, he embraced it wholeheartedly. According to the county therapist provided by the hall, he was highly motivated and engaged in therapy. Unfortunately he has not received anything close to that level of treatment in the county jail over the past three years.”

Youth justice advocate Kayla Kumar said the Gonzalez case is a challenging outlier, and cautioned against using it to more broadly normalize juvenile incarceration.

A member of the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Commission, Kumar worked within the county’s juvenile hall while Gonzalez was held there.

Asked her own view on whether he can be effectively rehabilitated, Kumar said that’s not a determination she is qualified to make. “There should be a place in our system focused on answering that question, and not how long a person should be thrown in a cage,” she said.

Status of Gonzalez’s trial

In the wake of Prop. 57, Santa Cruz County prosecutors successfully filed for Gonzalez to be transferred to adult court. In granting the transfer in 2017, a judge cited the gravity of Gonzalez’s alleged crimes, the degree of criminal sophistication and “the fact the defendant could not be rehabilitated.”

Gonzalez’s defense team appealed — a case that was rendered moot when SB 1391 took effect at the start of 2019, requiring he be tried as a juvenile.

Then, in May 2019, a Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge handling Gonzalez’s case found SB 1391 unconstitutional, and ruled that he should be tried as an adult.

Gonzalez’s defense appealed, a case that was put on ice pending the outcome of the high court ruling on the same law. With SB 1391 upheld, his case will now return to Juvenile Court, according to Biggam.

How soon it could progress to a trial remains unclear, and the complex case has already drawn on for more than five years.

“For us, the worst has already happened,” the Middleton family said Thursday. “We will now see where this path leads.”

Read the California Supreme Court’s opinion in the “O.G. v. Supreme Court of Ventura County” case here:

Follow Nick Ibarra on: Twitter. Ibarra has a track record of reporting that has shone light into almost every corner of Santa Cruz County. Raised in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he came to journalism from...