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‘You stole my joy’: Maddy Middleton’s mom, others decry sentence that sets up girl’s killer for release at 25

ADRIAN GONZALEZ SENTENCED: A crowd gathered outside the Santa Cruz County courthouse Tuesday as Adrian Gonzalez was sentenced in the murder of 8-year-old Madyson Middleton. People were protesting a state law that limited Gonzalez’s sentence to three-and-a-half more years because he was a juvenile when he committed the crime.

The mother of slain 8-year-old Madyson Middleton told a judge sentencing her daughter’s killer Tuesday that she has lived in “constant and chronic” fear, anger, rage, grief and despair since her daughter’s murder.

And speaking to the man who admitted killing Maddy — as her family called her — Laura Jordan implored: “You stole my joy, my ability to laugh sincerely, leaving me with utter and complete hopelessness.”

Jordan was among the family members who spoke in court before Judge John Salazar sentenced Adrian Gonzalez to the maximum penalty allowed — under juvenile law — for sexually assaulting and killing Maddy in 2015.

The penalty, in the eyes of protesters who descended on the courthouse, was lenient: Under state law, Gonzalez was sentenced to a Department of Juvenile Justice facility until he turns 25, which will happen in October 2024.

Until recently, the case had been stalled in the legal system for years over the question of whether Gonzalez, 15 at the time of the slaying but now age 21, should be tried as a juvenile or adult. That question was answered earlier this year, when a California Supreme Court ruling upheld the constitutionality of Senate Bill 1391, the state law that bars the prosecution of teens under the age of 16 as adults, even for violent crimes.

More than two dozen protesters gathered on the courthouse steps Tuesday to protest the law as the sentencing unfolded inside. Effectively, SB 1391 enabled Gonzalez to plead guilty to the crime in juvenile court rather than make that plea in adult court, where he could have faced life in prison, prosecutors have said.

During the roughly 20 minute sentencing hearing, Gonzalez mostly had his gaze down, picking it up only when Jordan addressed him directly from across the room and later when he made his own brief statement.

“AJ, I have been hollowed out by your cruel, brutal, unconscionable act,” Jordan said through tears. “Not once did you show any remorse for your maniacal actions.”

Madyson Middleton
(Santa Cruz Police Department)

Gonzalez, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, his face behind a black face mask, told the courtroom that he knows that “there is very little I can say after all the pain and suffering I have caused.”

He said his goal was to work on “my issues so that no one else has to experience what you have endured,” adding that he was aware that didn’t change the suffering he already wrought.

“I hope that one day I may earn your forgiveness,” Gonzalez said.

Family members, however, did not buy Gonzalez’s words.

“It did not sound sincere, it sounded staged, coached and I can imagine why,” said Mike Middleton, Maddy’s father, after the hearing.

Adrian Gonzalez in court during his sentencing Tuesday for the 2015 killing of Madyson Middleton
Adrian Gonzalez in court during his sentencing Tuesday for the 2015 killing of Madyson Middleton
(Shmuel Thaler / Santa Cruz Sentinel (Pool Photographer) )

And on the steps of the courthouse after the sentencing, Jordan — clutching a poster of her daughter, framed by hearts — told reporters and TV crews that she was “enraged.”

“They call it a justice system and this has been anything but justice,” she said. “This was a slap in the face.”

She also said she plans to move out of Santa Cruz now that the case is over.

Prosecutors had doggedly sought to try Gonzalez as an adult for the murder. Shortly after being arrested, Gonzalez 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.

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.

Since he was sentenced as a juvenile, Gonzalez must be released at age 25 unless the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) 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.

“As it stands, if DJJ is gone, what are the procedures? The answer is right now there are none that are viable in 2023,” Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeff Rosell told reporters. “That is something that clearly needs to be worked on.”

Gonzalez’s public defender, Larry Biggam, had previously argued that his client already has demonstrated he is a candidate for rehabilitation. Gonzalez’s life was filled with trauma and risk factors, Biggam has said, adding that he “fell through the safety net cracks and never received any treatment until his arrest in this case.”

Speaking to reporters and TV crews gathered in the courtyard of the courthouse complex after Tuesday’s proceedings, Biggam said SB 1391 “means that authorities have to look at the backstory,” the history and context.

“Not just of Adrian, but of other 14- and 15-year-old kids who commit very serious crimes,” he said. “And it’s good policy, because it promotes public safety. Kids who get treated behave better than those who don’t in the adult system.”

None of it excuses the crime, Biggam added, “but when we deal with kids like this, we have to give them a safe environment, an age-appropriate environment where they get the opportunity for rehabilitation and redemption.”

But Rosell, the district attorney, speaking to the same gaggle of reporters shortly after said previous expert testimony in the case had born out that anyone thinking “that this person is going to be healthy and fixed and able to come out into society at the age of 25 is mistaken.”

“Certain changes need to be made in juvenile justice, juvenile reform, of course,” Rosell said. “But one-size-fits-all legislation that takes no account at all for people like Adrian. We had experts who said they had never ever seen anybody present like him. Ever.”

Tuesday’s hearing put on display the impact the murder has had on Maddy’s family, according to Rossell.

“You saw the grief, the heartache, the sadness that was caused by this,” Rosell said. “And what you also know is that this is a crime that absolutely rocked our community.”

“The loss is just unfathomable,” he added.

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