Madyson Middleton
(Santa Cruz Police Department)
Government

If convicted, could Madyson Middletons’s alleged murderer still walk free within 4 years?

The California Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in a related case that could determine whether Adrian Jerry Gonzalez, accused of killing 8-year-old Madyson in 2015, could spend the rest of his life in prison or be released much sooner.

The family of Madyson Middleton has been waiting for closure since 2015, when the 8-year-old girl was brutally murdered at the Tannery Arts Center — a crime that sent shockwaves far beyond the tight-knit Santa Cruz community.

In the latest delay, her family is now waiting on the California Supreme Court.

As of Tuesday, the court has 90 days to decide a matter that has delayed the prosecution of Madyson’s alleged killer, Adrian Jerry Gonzalez, who was 15 years old when prosecutors say he tied up the girl, sexually assaulted her, and stabbed and strangled her to death, before confessing to the crime.

Presented by Santa Cruz County Bank

Illuminée Studio and other local businesses are staying strong during the pandemic thanks in part to Santa Cruz County...

At issue is the constitutionality of a state law barring the prosecution of teens under age 16 as adults. As justices deliberate, Gonzalez, now 21, remains in Santa Cruz County Jail awaiting trial. Depending on how they rule, he could — if found guilty — spend the rest of his life in prison . . . or be eligible for release by age 25.

The state’s high court heard oral arguments Tuesday morning in “O.G. v. Superior Court of Ventura County,” an unrelated case that has become a focal point in the prosecution of Gonzalez because of the shared legal question at its core.

A 2016 state law, Senate Bill 1391 because of the legislation that created it, prevents prosecutors from charging teens ages 14 and 15 as adults, even when their alleged crimes are severe. In the O.G. case, justices are tasked with deciding whether the law violates changes to the California constitution that were approved under Prop. 57 the same year.

Under Prop. 57, the onus to decide whether to charge those teens as adults was shifted from prosecutors to judges — a reform hailed by juvenile justice advocates concerned about onerous prosecutions of young people of color.

But in the O.G. case, an appeals court ruled that, by preventing those prosecutions altogether under SB 1391, the Legislature overstepped the will of the voters, and that the youth in question should be tried as an adult.

If the appeals court’s decision is upheld, Gonzalez’s prosecution can continue in adult court, where he could face life imprisonment if convicted.

But if the decision is overturned, Gonzalez would be tried as a juvenile and could “age out” of juvenile detention. That means that — even if found guilty of murdering Madyson — he would be released by age 25, unless determined by a judge to present a serious threat to public safety.

Madyson’s mother, Laura Jordan; father, Michael Middleton; and paternal grandparents are calling on the state Supreme Court to “let justice be done” and overturn SB 1391 in a letter they’ve circulated to local media.

“We cannot believe that the individual who planned to kidnap, rape and murder our Maddy could soon be walking out of jail because State Senator Holly Mitchell and Ricardo Lara chose a one-size-fits-all approach to juvenile justice,” the letter states, referencing SB 1391’s lead authors. “This is wrong and lets an intentional, vicious murderer walk free.”

Santa Cruz County Public Defender Larry Biggam, whose office is representing Gonzalez, counters that 14- and 15-year-olds who commit serious crimes “need care, not cages.”

“I do believe Adrian Gonzalez is motivated and amenable to treatment,” Biggam said in a statement sent after the high court’s oral arguments Tuesday. “He has been an excellent inmate in our juvenile hall and county jail.”

Madyson was reported missing July 25, 2015. Her body was found the next day in a recycling bin at the Tannery Arts Center, where she lived. Gonzalez was arrested and, according to authorities, confessed to police.

Prosecutors accuse Gonzalez of luring Madyson into an apartment at the Tannery. He was charged with murder, rape of a child, kidnapping and other crimes.

“This was not an accident,” Middleton’s family wrote in their recent letter. “This 15 ½-year-old male planned to kidnap, sexually assault, torture and ultimately kill an 8-year-old child. He researched it, planned it, shopped for the plan, executed the plan, then hid her body in the bottom of a recycling bin under layers of cardboard.”

A drawn out legal saga has ensued, much of it focused on the same basic question now before the state Supreme Court in the O.G. case.

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 Gonzalez 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 attorneys appealed once again, a case that remains on pause pending the outcome of the O.G. case before the state Supreme Court.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has defended SB 1391 as constitutional. Juvenile justice groups have argued that, without it, Black and Latino youth who stand accused of crimes are more likely to be charged as adults.

Due to the pandemic, oral arguments in the O.G. case were streamed remotely Tuesday morning. Attorney Michelle Contois, arguing for the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office, told justices that the law is clearly unconstitutional.

Advocating on behalf of O.G., attorney Jennifer Hansen countered that the law is consistent with voters’ intentions in approving Prop. 57. “Repealing the power of the prosecutor to seek to transfer 14 to 15 year olds [to adult court] is consistent with, and furthers, the statutory changes that voters already endorsed,” she said.

The court now has 90 days to file its written opinion, after which time Gonzalez’s case is expected to resume.