Two weeks after a mass shooting claimed the lives of four people at an Orange mobile home sales office, the court case against the alleged shooter has yet to inch forward, with criminal proceedings slowed to a halt by his medical condition.
With Aminadab Gaxiola Gonzalez reportedly having issues communicating with his own attorneys, his initial court appearance on special circumstances murder charges has been delayed at least seven times over a two-week span during a series of brief daily hearings.
Late Tuesday morning, one of the veteran public defenders representing Gonzalez made her now-daily virtual appearance in the busy Santa Ana courtroom of Orange County Superior Court Judge Cheri Pham. Broadcasting from the medical facility where Gonzalez is being held, Assistant Public Defender Kira Rubin appeared on a large screen facing the judge, as Deputy District Attorney Mena Guirguis stood in the courtroom nearby.
“There has not been substantial change to the point where we can communicate for the arraignment,” Rubin said of Gonzalez’s condition, a description the judge acknowledged before quickly rescheduling the hearing for Wednesday.
Delayed hearings are a fact of life in criminal courts. But in the early stages of the Gonzalez case, the defendant’s apparent medical issues have raised their own unique challenges in the most high-profile of criminal proceedings.
Gonzalez was shot by police after, prosecutors allege, he carried out a shooting rampage on March 31 at the offices of Unified Homes that left four people dead, including a 9-year-old boy. The boy’s mother, as well as Gonzalez himself, were seriously injured.
The day after the shootings, prosecutors charged Gonzalez with special circumstances murder for the slayings of Jenevieve Raygoza, 28; Luis Tovar, 50; Leticia Solis Guzman, 58: and Matthew Farias, 9.
The next day, the first scheduled arraignment – during which a defendant is informed of and asked if they understand the charges they are facing and asked to enter a plea – saw its first delay.
Defendants have a right to an arraignment within days of being charged. But that requires a defendant to be lucid enough to understand what is going on.
Gonzalez’s apparent inability to communicate with his attorneys also means they can’t take a waiver from him that they would need to reschedule the arraignment for weeks from now.
That has left the court participants in an unusual situation – unable to move forward with the proceedings, but also unable to significantly delay them. The result has been the daily, often only minutes-long hearings.
UCI Clinical Professor of Law Katherine Tinto described an arraignment as “the first and primary” proceeding in criminal cases, where a defendant must demonstrate that they understand both that they are being prosecuted and exactly what charges they are facing.
Subsequent decisions about whether to invoke ones right to a speedy trial are “primarily in the hands of the defendant,” Tinto noted.
“So if a lawyer is unable to communicate, even to discuss the arraignment itself, it is difficult,” Tinto said.
Speaking generally, since she is not involved in the Gonzalez case, Tinto said judges are extremely wary about waiving a defendant’s rights if they are not present.
“A delay of two weeks may seem extreme, but in the bigger picture may not be long,” Tinto said.
During a hearing Friday, Guirguis, the prosecutor, told the judge that he had been told by a deputy with access to Gonzalez that his condition had shown improvement, but not enough for him to communicate. When asked by the judge that same day if they had any idea how long the situation would continue, an attorney representing Gonzalez said they did not know.
Assistant Public Defender Ken Morrison – who is also representing Gonzalez – said he couldn’t comment further on Gonzalez’s condition, citing his privacy rights and the pending criminal proceedings.
“As far as predicting the future, it would not be responsible for me to comment further at this time other than to say I am hopeful that Mr. Gonzalez will be able to fully participate in his defense,” Morrison said.
At one point Judge Pham indicated that she wanted to see Gonzalez directly in order to gauge his condition, asking his attorneys to point the hospital camera at him. The defense attorneys expressed concern, since the hearings are broadcast live online.
The judge instead accepted an agreement where one of Gonzalez’s attorneys, or their investigators, would go to see him at the hospital, in person, before each hearing in order to gauge whether he can communicate.
Though there has been no talk of it in the Gonzalez case, the law does allow a judge to find a defendant not mentally fit to stand trial. That requires evaluations of the defendant by mental health professionals, and can result in them being held for treatment at a state hospital.
Source: Orange County Register