California

Second daughter testifies in Assemblyman Arambula’s child abuse trial. She gives dad a hug

Excerpts from opening statements in Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula’s trial

Watch highlights of opening statements in Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula’s misdemeanor child abuse trial from Assistant District Attorney Steven Wright and defense attorney Margarita Martinez-Baly in Superior Court on Friday morning, May 3, 2019.
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Watch highlights of opening statements in Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula’s misdemeanor child abuse trial from Assistant District Attorney Steven Wright and defense attorney Margarita Martinez-Baly in Superior Court on Friday morning, May 3, 2019.

The trial of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula continued Tuesday with testimony from witnesses for the prosecution, including the Fresno police detective in charge of investigating Arambula and the assemblyman’s 6-year-old middle daughter.

Arambula is accused of misdemeanor child abuse stemming from a bruise on the head of his eldest daughter, who is 7 and testified over the past few days. He was cited for the allegation in December and charged in March.

The Fresno County District Attorney’s office has accused Arambula of slapping his daughter, but he has denied the allegation.

The testimony began Tuesday with objections from Arambula’s attorneys, Michael Aed and Margarita Martinez-Baly, who attempted to block Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright from showing the remainder of a video in which the alleged victim described the incident to a forensic investigator. They claimed that, among other things, the video would be a waste of the jury’s time.

Judge Alvin Harrell ruled against the defense, allowing the playback to continue.

The video

The jury watched the first section of the video on Monday. It showed the alleged victim, Arambula’s 7-year-old daughter, speaking to an investigator trained to handle domestic violence and abuse cases on Dec. 11, the day after Arambula’s arrest. Law enforcement, including Fresno Police Detective Ken Dodd, watched the interview from another room.

After various tests to gauge whether the girl can differentiate truth from lies, the investigator asked the girl about her bruise.

She first said her father hit her on the mouth after he entered the room to find her 6-year-old sister crying. He was standing and had pinned the 7-year-old to her bed.

But she then said her dad had tripped on a toy and fallen on her. When pressed by the interviewer, the girl seemed to be suggesting it was an accident. She said her dad apologized, asked for a hug, gave her an ice pack and a candy bar.

The interviewer then left the room.

On Tuesday, Dodd testified that the Fresno County social worker assigned to the case, Amber Fithian, contacted the interviewer to tell her the girl had been coached between Fithian’s interview on Dec. 10 and the forensic interview on Dec. 11.

“(The girl’s) story had changed,” Dodd said Tuesday.

As the video started back up, the 7-year-old told the interviewer she had been worried that her dad would be sent to jail when she talked to Fithian, which impacted her memory. She said her mother, Elizabeth Arambula, spoke to her after her interview with Fithian and told her that her father loves her and that she should not tell lies.

After Arambula’s arrest, his three daughters were placed with his parents for two days.

During that time, the girl said in her taped interview, her grandmother Amy, who is an attorney, told her just to talk about the nice things so that her father would not get in trouble.

She then described several previous instances in which Arambula allegedly hurt her. Though she listed specific details, some of her answers contained clear exaggerations, such as her father being fined “$1,000,001,094” after she set off the alarm or that he was able to rip a phone book in half.

Aed then questioned Dodd for some time on whether the case was handled in a typical fashion.

Dodd said it is common for patrolmen to contact their supervisors immediately after interviewing witnesses, as was done in this case. It is also not uncommon for supervisors to follow-up through emails to detectives.

When asked about a “caveman stick,” which the defense had discussed in its opening statement, Dodd said the girl made no mention of it.

Dodd said he arranged for follow-up interviews with teachers and office staff at the victim’s school.

Aed asked why Dodd did not interview family members or go to Arambula’s house during his investigation. The detective said both Joaquin and Elizabeth indicated to police they would not be speaking without an attorney present, and he said misdemeanor investigations don’t typically involve visits to the victim’s home.

“If I did go out there, it would have been different (than what’s typical),” Dodd said. “That would not be fair to your client, because I would be treating it like a felony.”

Dodd said he checked police records for previous calls to Arambula’s house, but there did not appear to be a call for an alarm similar to what the girl described. There was one previous call several years prior for a break-in.

Aed asked if Dodd examined the girl or had a medical professional examine her. The detective did not, he said, because the bruise was not deemed serious.

The defense and prosecution each questioned Dodd about why there was no police-worn body camera footage. He said the officer involved, Stephen Phebus, did not have his camera at the time as it was being repaired.

At the prosecution’s direction, Dodd also described a Fresno Police Department policy that instructs officers not to use their camera when interviewing child abuse victims or witnesses who are under 12.

Second daughter testifies

After Dodd’s testimony, Arambula’s 6-year-old daughter – who was in the room when the alleged abuse took place – was called to testify. She carried a pink stuffed elephant with her to the witness stand, where her grandfather, former Assemblyman Juan Arambula, joined her for support.

Wright asked the girl to describe what happens when she gets in trouble. She said she is put on timeout and must apologize when she does something wrong.

When asked if she gets spanked, the girl said her mom sometimes spanks her when she does “really bad things,” but her father does not.

Wright eventually asked if her father ever squeezed her – something her elder sister said he did to all of his children. The middle daughter said her father sometimes squeezes her and her siblings, and that it hurts her stomach.

She said she’s been squeezed twice. When she told her dad it hurt, he stopped, she said. Her 3-year-old sister has also been five times, while the eldest sibling has been squeezed three times.

The girl said her father does not yell at her.

Martinez-Baly then questioned the girl about fun times she has spent with her dad, such as a father-daughter dance and attending a music performance at The Tower Theatre.

Just as she did with the girl’s sister, Martinez-Baly did not ask any questions surrounding the alleged assault. Wright also did not ask her about the night in question.

As she left the courtroom, the girl hugged her father.

Correction: The original version of this story quoted the 6-year-old saying the eldest sibling had been squeezed 30 times, based on what the reporter heard and recorded. The official court transcript quotes her testifying it was three times.

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Rory Appleton is a fourth-generation Fresnan who covers politics for his hometown newspaper. A Fresno State graduate, he has won six first-place California News Publishers Association awards and a McClatchy President’s Award for his reporting and column writing over the last two years.
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