SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (KION) The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that minors under the age of 16 cannot be tried in adult criminal court, a decision that affects the case of Maddy Middleton's murder.
The ruling from the court came in the case of O.G. vs The Superior Court of Ventura County.
Proposition 57, which passed in November 2016, allowed for some minors as young as 14 to be moved from juvenile court to adult criminal court (at the recommendation of the judge), but in 2018, Senate Bill 1391 amended the proposition and did not allow minors under the age of 16 to be transferred to adult court.
The Supreme Court upheld SB 1391 in the Court of Appeals, finding that it is an allowable amendment to Prop 57.
One of the cases that will be affected by the ruling is the murder of Maddy Middleton.
Eight-year-old Madyson "Maddy" Middleton was lured into a Santa Cruz apartment in 2015, and she was later found dead. The suspect in her murder, Adrian "A.J." Gonzalez, was 15 years old at the time and was decided to be tried as an adult, but the passing SB 1391 delayed the case as the two sides debated what should happen. He is accused of kidnapping, raping and murdering Middleton.
"We just fear that he would get out at 25, that's certainly not justice served, but he would get out at 25 and he would be a threat to our communities. That's the fear," said Maddy's grandfather, Dan Middleton at the time.
Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeff Rosell spoke with KION shortly after the Supreme Court's decision on Thursday.
"We are extremely disappointed. I've spoken with some of the family and they absolutely devastated."
Rosell describes the brutality of the crime, going the the alleged actions of Gonzalez, and says Gonzalez "acted as if nothing had happened. That is not a person who based on all the evidence we heard in nine weeks from experts throughout the state, that is not someone who is going to be safely released into our community."
Supporters of the bill say it allows juveniles to seek rehabilitation they would not get in prison. If Gonzalez is found guilty, instead of facing life in prison, he may be sent to the Department of Juvenile Justice and released when he is 25.
Larry Biggam is the public defender representing Gonzalez. He tells KION, "In Juvenile hall, (Gonzalez) responded very well to the programming, the services and the support and the structure of the hall." Biggam describes Gonlzalez's last three years in adult jail as "wasted." "Kids can get treatment and are not just thrown into an adult prisons where they are going to learn very bad habits," Biggam adds.
Biggam also explains Gonzalez could remain in custody after the age of 25. "The authorities can petition the court to extend their stay in custody for another two years at a time," he said.
But that prospect is increasingly unlikely, according to the District Attorney. Rosell tells KION that while the Department of Juvenile Justice ruled Gonzalez is not fit for their facility, new political decisions could impact what happens down the line.
"The Governor has done away with the Department of Juvenile Justice, so the very body that was able to make a request, the only body that was able to make a request, is a body that is being dismantled," Rosell said.
Middleton's family released the follow statement to KION Thursday.
"The decision by the California Supreme Court that SB 1391 is constitutional is absolutely disappointing to our family.
We have thought long and hard about what we desire from the justice system in regards to this case. 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.
We believe that the heinous nature of the crime, level of sophistication and manipulation, planning, and cover-up indicates all of the characteristics of a psychopathic killer, who needs to be kept away from our children and society. It is our firm belief that the California Juvenile Justice System, as it exists today, is not capable of adequately dealing with this type of individual.
For us, the worst has already happened. We will now see where this path leads."- Middleton Family statement to KION 2/25/21
Last year, Maddy's family released a statement about their stance on the bill.
"On July 26, 2015 in the city and county of Santa Cruz, California Madyson Jordan Middleton was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a 15 ½ year old male. This was not an accident. This 15 ½ year old male planned to kidnap, sexually assault, torture and ultimately kill an 8 year old child. 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. 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. This is one of the individuals who will benefit from SB1391. If SB1391 is found to be constitutional this young man will be released from custody at the age of 25. We are Madyson’s family. We cannot believe that the individual who planned to kidnap, rape and murder our Maddy could soon be walking out of jail because State Senator Holly Mitchell and Ricardo Lara chose a one-size-fits-all approach to juvenile justice. This is wrong and lets an intentional, vicious murderer walk free. The People of the State of California voted to enact Proposition 57 in 2016 in an attempt to even the playing field for juveniles. Proposition 57 allows for a juvenile court judge to decide whether a juvenile should be transferred to adult court. We believe that this a fair and just manner to determine the fate of a juvenile who would commit such a heinous crime. The California Supreme Court needs to overturn Senate Bill 1391 and let
justice be done," they wrote.
Read the full opinion released by the Supreme Court below.