Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula testified in his own defense Tuesday morning as his misdemeanor child abuse trial nears its conclusion. During his time on the stand, he adamantly rejected both the prosecution’s and his own daughter’s versions of the events of Dec. 9.
Arambula, D-Fresno, was arrested on Dec. 10 and accused of injuring his 7-year-old daughter the night before. Police were called out to the girl’s school after she told school personnel her father had hit her and showed staff members a bruise on her temple.
As Arambula settled onto the witness stand, he told his attorney he was nervous but had been looking forward to this day. Arambula had watched seven days of testimony from police, a social worker, school staff, therapists and much of his family – including two of his three daughters – before having his opportunity to address the jury.
The first 45 minutes of Arambula’s testimony focused on his family’s dynamics and his role as a father.
The assemblyman is away in Sacramento four days out of every week while the Legislature is in session, which is about seven months out of the year. As such, his wife handles much of the day-to-day child rearing and discipline. But he said he tries to spend as much time with his girls as possible, often taking one or all of them with him to official events or taking them to school, church or the library.
First and only spanking
He denied ever having hit any of his three daughters. The Dec. 9 incident was the first and only time he has ever spanked any of his daughters, he testified.
Arambula described the way he and his wife handle bad behavior by any of their girls: holding the daughter in place in a sort of bear hug on either parent’s lap. He testified this allows the girls – particularly the eldest, whom he said has difficulty admitting when she is wrong and often tries to physically run from situations – to be present in that moment for a conversation about proper discipline.
About an hour into his testimony, the assemblyman began to describe the weekend leading up to the alleged incident.
He was the keynote speaker at a Fresno State event Saturday, Dec. 8 focused on the rights of children. His middle and eldest daughters also took part in the event as part of a group of children reading prepared lines to the audience.
His daughters’ cousins – the sons of Arambula’s brother-in-law Nate Miller – then came over to play on the night of Dec. 8.
His wife, Elizabeth, left the next day; she testified during the trial that she went to Los Angeles for a doctor’s appointment and returned to Fresno late Monday morning.
Sunday morning, Joaquin Arambula took the girls to church. They then went to the library and hung out at home until bedtime. The three girls took a bath, and Arambula set about putting them to bed.
He testified that his wife usually puts their youngest, 3, to bed while he focuses on the elder girls. As Elizabeth was out of town, he had more work to do, and it took some time to get the youngest girl settled. The other girls were being loud as he attempted to do this, he said.
Arambula said he and the eldest girls listened to a podcast as the middle daughter began to sleep. It was well past their 7:30 p.m. bedtime. He commanded his eldest daughter to go to sleep and shut off the light in the girls’ room before heading to his bathroom.
He had not yet reached his bathroom when he heard the screams of his middle daughter: “I’m hurt,” he described as what she yelled.
When he entered the room, Arambula said, he could hear his middle daughter screaming but she was no longer on her bed. He was worried, since she had been asleep moments earlier.
The eldest girl was yelling “I didn’t hurt her” as the middle daughter held her eye. Arambula said several times that the middle girl had been hurt.
“As a parent, you know your child’s cries, and she was hurt,” he said.
As he asked his eldest daughter what happened, she continued to yell and told him he was not listening to her, Arambula said. He was also worried about the older girl’s safety, and as she jumped toward the foot of her bed, he caught her in mid-air.
She began flailing and continued to scream, Arambula said. She would not listen to his commands to calm down, and he said he worried she would also wake his youngest daughter, who was asleep in his bedroom down the hall. He held her in the family bear hug fashion, which he described as him behind her, holding her arms crossed with his palms on her elbows to keep her still.
“At some point she was still screaming, and I wanted to go check on (his middle daughter),” Arambula said. “For the first time in my life, I spanked (his eldest daughter) twice on the butt.”
This became the final of at least a half-dozen possible versions of how the girl was bruised to be shared with the jury. It was the first time any mention was made of Arambula catching the girl as she was jumping on her bed.
The girl did not mention any such spanking, instead saying he “grasped” her head and his ring caused the bruise.
The family’s therapist testified Monday that the girl has been clear in saying she was not spanked on that night.
The girl gave various accounts of the alleged incident in interviews with authorities and her own testimony – an accident while playing with her sister, a hit from her dad as he attempted to hit her ears, a slap from her dad, an accident as he clapped his palms on her head, an accident as he fell on a toy and landed on her.
Her uncle, Nate Miller, also testified that she banged heads with his son during their play date on Dec. 8.
During his testimony, Arambula said he got his middle daughter to sleep after spanking his eldest. He then sat in a pink chair at the corner of the girls’ room for about five minutes talking to the eldest, whom he said told him she was mad at him and hated him.
Arambula testified that he does not know how his daughter received a bruise on her head. He said he did not notice it the following morning.
Into the criminal system
He dropped her off at school and was eventually called back after his wife called during the Fresno Police Department’s investigation.
When asked by his lawyer if police had spoken to him, he responded: “Law enforcement had a different version – something that was not consistent with who I know me to be.”
He said he complied with officers and was eventually taken in the back of a patrol car to police headquarters, where he was “put behind bars,” photographed and cited.
Arambula said social services had taken his children by the time he returned home. He had an interview the next day with Amber Fithian, the social worker investigating the alleged abuse. They had another group interview the following day, after which he regained custody of his kids “with no restrictions.”
The family chose to receive group and individual therapy, Arambula said, because the event had been “traumatic.”
During his cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright asked Arambula if he had been giving his daughter cues or coaching her during his testimony. Judge Alvin Harrell had warned Arambula not to do this during a break.
“No sir, I was trying to be present and support my daughter while she was on the stand after you subpoenaed her,” Arambula said.
Like his mother’s testimony on Monday, Arambula’s time on the stand was at times a little rocky. His long and compound answers were cut short by Wright’s objections and Harrell’s decision to strike the testimony from the record.
Harrell twice spoke to Arambula about keeping his answers short and to the point, adding that he knows this is a difficult time for the assemblyman.
During Wright’s cross-examination, Arambula attorney Michael Aed successfully objected to several sharply worded questions lobbed by Wright.
Arambula’s brother, Diego, also testified Tuesday morning. Like several other family members had previously testified, he said his brother had not ever hurt any of his children.
The defense concluded its case after Joaquin Arambula’s testimony, and Wright chose not to call any witnesses in rebuttal to Arambula’s case.
The two sides will give their closing arguments to the jury on Wednesday morning. The jury will then begin its deliberations. The court will be closed on Friday, so if a verdict isn’t reached by Thursday afternoon, the case will continue into next week.