California Supreme Court justices will hear oral arguments today about a major criminal justice question. The court will consider the constitutionality of a law that changed the rules about how young criminal defendants can be tried in court.
The law—Senate Bill 1391, which took effect in 2019—has implications across California. The case is garnering particular interest from the family of 8-year-old Madyson “Maddy” Middleton, who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by 15-year-old Adrian “A.J.” Gonzalez in 2015, prosecutors say. But SB 1391 prohibits anyone under the age of 16 from being tried as an adult. So under the law, Gonzalez has to be tried as a juvenile.
Four of Middleton’s family members—including her parents, Michel Middleton and Laura Jordan—released a statement saying they hope the high court does declare SB 1391 unconstitutional. The family members say they’re worried Gonzalez, now 21, may walk free in the next few years, instead of serving what could otherwise be a life sentence behind bars.
“This is wrong and lets an intentional, vicious murderer walk free,” a statement from the family reads.
Five years ago, they say Gonzalez planned to kidnap, sexually assault, torture and kill Maddy—and then did so, with an alarming level of sophistication.
“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,” the statement explains. “Next he hid her scooter and made himself helpful to the search teams in an attempt to manipulate law enforcement as they searched the complex looking for her.”
The current court case is O.G. vs. the Superior Court of Ventura County, case number S259011. In hearing the case, the state Supreme Court will seek to resolve conflicting rulings from different appellate courts on questions about SB 1391.
Over the last half-decade, shifting state law has left Gonzalez’s case in a somewhat dizzying state of limbo. Proposition 57, approved by voters in 2016, introduced new criminal justice reforms. Among them was that it made it easier for youths to be tried as juveniles.
This was before the passage of SB 1391, mandating that suspects under 16 actually have to be tried as juveniles. One appellate court ruled that SB 1391 contradicts Prop 57. It’s a view that Maddy’s family shares.
The concepts behind SB 1391 do have supporters. Some criminal justice reform advocates say criminals can be juvenile convicted criminals can be rehabilitated by age 25 and that they don’t need to spend life behind bars.
Attorney Frankie Guzman, who co-authored Prop 57, has said that most young criminals can be rehabilitated. He told GT in 2017 that one problematic factor shaping the discourse is that the news media often places more emphasis on the stories of the victims. In doing so, he argued that reporters craft incomplete narratives around criminal cases, spinning public opinion in the process.
“Media looks for the big story, the sensationalized story,” said Guzman, director of the California Juvenile Justice Initiative in Oakland, adding that he would not discount the pain or suffering of any victim’s family. “The coverage is designed to evoke an emotional response.”