Madyson Middleton
(Santa Cruz Police Department)
Civic Life

Adrian Gonzalez pleads guilty to killing 8-year-old Madyson Middleton, but he could walk free in 4 years

Gonzalez, now 21, is set to be sentenced on April 27. But a recent California Supreme Court ruling sets the stage for him to be released at age 25, officials said Tuesday.

Adrian Jerry Gonzalez on Tuesday pleaded guilty to killing 8-year-old Madyson Middleton nearly six years ago, setting the stage for him to be eligible to walk free at age 25 because of a recent California Supreme Court ruling that sent his case back to juvenile court.

Prosecutors had sought to try Gonzalez as an adult for the murder, which sent shock waves far beyond Santa Cruz given the young ages of both Maddy and Gonzalez, then 15, plus the unsettling details of the crime. Prosecutors had charged Gonzalez with luring Maddy into an apartment at the Tannery Arts Center — a residential hub of the Santa Cruz arts scene where Maddy lived with her mom — before sexually assaulting and killing her there on July 25, 2015.

Had he been tried as an adult and pleaded guilty, Gonzalez — now 21 — would have faced life in prison.

But because of the recent ruling by the state’s high court, Gonzalez’s case was transferred back to juvenile court on Tuesday.

Immediately thereafter, Gonzalez pleaded guilty — in juvenile court terms, “admitted” — to Middleton’s murder and a slew of related charges, including kidnapping and rape. His sentencing hearing is set for April 27.

“The fight is over, and there is no sort of legal basis whatsoever to do anything except have him go back to juvenile court,” said Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeff Rosell. “And that’s kind of where we are, the family is heartbroken and devastated.”

Gonzalez’s defense attorney and representatives of the Middleton family couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

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 had been on hold pending the outcome of another case, this one in Ventura County, that challenged the constitutionality of a 2016 state law. That 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.

In late February, the court released its opinion — unanimously upholding SB 1391 and its ban on the adult prosecutions of teens 15 and under. At that time, Maddy’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.”

In February, Rosell said his office was “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.”

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

Biggam contended 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 treatment was available to him 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,” Biggam said.

Under current law, Gonzalez would be released at age 25 unless the Department of Juvenile Justice determines he continues to present a serious threat to public safety. If that evaluation is made, the DJJ could request prosecutors to petition the court to extend his sentence by two year increments.

The DJJ is set to be dissolved in 2023, however, casting added doubt on how that process could function.

“Could he be eligible, at 25, to get out? The answer is 100% yes,” Rosell said. “Is there a procedure in place to essentially petition that he stay longer? And the answer is ‘We’re not quite sure, because the body that was in charge of that is now going to disappear.’

“Is the Legislature going to sort this out and figure something out? You tell me.”