Madyson Middleton
(Santa Cruz Police Department)
Civic Life

Protest planned outside courthouse as Gonzalez set for juvenile sentencing in Maddy Middleton murder

Adrian Jerry Gonzalez, who earlier this month pleaded guilty to killing 8-year-old Madyson Middleton nearly six years ago, is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday as a case that reverberated well beyond Santa Cruz and stalled for years could finally draw to a close.

The hearing comes against the backdrop of a fight over a state law that bars the prosecution of teens under the age of 16 as adults — legislation that impacted Gonzalez’s case. Opponents of the law, Senate Bill 1391, plan to protest it in front of the Santa Cruz courthouse while the legal proceedings play out inside.

For Gonzalez, who is 21 now but was 15 when he killed Maddy, that law — and a ruling issued by the California Supreme Court earlier this year upholding its constitutionality — means he could walk free at age 25. His prosecution had dragged on for years over the question of whether he should be tried as a juvenile or adult.

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

Prosecutors had sought to try Gonzalez as an adult for the murder. Shortly after being arrested, he admitted to police that he lured 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.

If he had been tried as an adult, Gonzalez would have faced life in prison if convicted. But because of the recent ruling by the state’s high court, his case was transferred back to juvenile court. Gonzalez then pleaded guilty — in juvenile court terms, “admitted” — to Maddy’s murder and a slew of related charges, including kidnapping and rape.

A flyer regarding the protest planned outside the Santa Cruz County courthouse on Tuesday.
A flyer regarding the protest planned outside the Santa Cruz County courthouse on Tuesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Once sentenced as a juvenile, Gonzalez must be released at age 25 unless the Department of Juvenile Justice determines he continues to present a serious threat to public safety. The DJJ could then request that a judge extend his sentence by two-year increments. But the DJJ is set to be dissolved in 2023, casting added doubt on how that process would work.

A life filled with trauma

Rosell has said his office was “extremely disappointed” by the high court’s ruling while Larry Biggam, Gonzalez’s public defender, has called the law “good public policy.” He has argued that his client already has demonstrated he is a candidate for rehabilitation.

“This case was never a ‘whodunit’; it was always a struggle to get him needed treatment in the juvenile system,” Biggam said in an email to Lookout earlier this month. “He admitted ‘to the sheet’ in juvenile court once the Supreme Court upheld the new law. Adrian’s life was filled with trauma and risk factors. He fell through the safety net cracks and never received any treatment until his arrest in this case. He was suicidal at the time of this crime.”

That’s not to excuse the crime by any means, Biggam continued, but to explain Gonzalez’s state of mind.

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“He responded well to the structure, support, and services of Juvenile Hall for 2½ years,” Biggam wrote. “After flunking 8th and 9th grade, he graduated from high school early at the Hall. He took a class online from Cabrillo. Yes, he needs time and treatment, but he is salvageable.”

But some who have been watching the case play out over the years — dating back to when Maddy first went missing — fear Gonzalez still presents a danger to others.

“What is it to say that he’s not going to commit a crime like that again?” said Helena Quixada, a Boulder Creek resident who helps run a Facebook group in opposition to SB1391 — and who is organizing Tuesday’s planned protest outside the courthouse. “This is someone who has exhibited no sympathy, no empathy. Can that be taught? Do we want to take that risk as a society?”

Her issue with SB 1391 is that it’s a “blanket statement,” keeping an accused in the juvenile court system, regardless of whether they’re “a good candidate for rehabilitation or not.”

How to follow the hearing
  • Event
    Gonzalez's sentencing set for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday
    Santa Cruz County Court officials have said that in-person public access to the courtroom for Adrian Gonzalez’s sentencing hearing won’t be possible due to COVID-19 precautions and social distancing requirements. Officials recommend using the court’s live audio stream instead, by clicking on the stream for Department 7 at 1:30 p.m.

“Essentially, it states that as long as they’re 14 or 15 years old when you commit a crime, regardless of how severe it is, you go to the juvenile court, you can no longer go to the adult court,” Quixada said.

Quixada’s own daughter was 1 year old when Maddy was murdered in 2015. She remembers looking at the posters being distributed, hoping Maddy would be found safely. When it was revealed what had happened, it “just broke my heart” and took her breath away, Quixada said.

“As a parent that is completely and utterly unimaginable,” she said. “It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, and I think of Maddy and her family so often. You know, every time I put my daughter to bed is realizing her family can no longer do that.”

Calling out lawmakers

The flyers for Tuesday’s protest and Quixada point out that local lawmakers, including Assemblymember Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, voted for SB 1391. She said she has talked to Stone about the law but said her back and forth was ultimately disappointing.

Emailed questions about SB 1391 and the Gonzalez case to Stone’s office were not answered by Monday afternoon.

Bill Monning, the predecessor to now-State Senator John Laird, also voted in favor of the bill. When reached for comment via email, Monning responded that he wasn’t engaging on the political front right now because of a family matter but added that he hoped to be more available in future months.

To Biggam, Gonzalez’s public defender, the law is “based on data and promotes public safety.”

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“Kids who commit serious crimes behave better when they get treatment compared to those who come out of the adult system without treatment,” he wrote. “Any meaningful opportunity for change and reform requires a correctional setting that treats and does not traumatize its occupants.”

Most people do want the emphasis to be on rehabilitation, Quixada said, but she argues that, at a minimum, the law needs to be changed to allow for an exception in extreme cases, such as this one, to try the person as an adult.

She hopes the protest at noon Tuesday will help people give a voice, raise awareness and force lawmakers to listen. It’s a way to come together and have a “constructive outlet,” Quixada said.

“Essentially it’s, you know, our way of communicating with our representatives, having them hear us and see us and not feel so invisible and voiceless,” she said.