An Orange County judge on Friday ruled that the man accused of carrying out a mass shooting at a real estate office in Orange is not competent to stand trial, after a head injury sustained during a shootout with police has left him unable to communicate or understand the court proceedings.
The decision, announced Friday afternoon by Judge Cheri Pham in her Santa Ana courtroom, followed evaluations of Aminadab Gaxiola Gonzalez by mental health experts, two court-appointed and a third hired by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
The criminal proceedings against Gonzalez will remain indefinitely suspended as he receives treatment. Should he later be found competent, the criminal case could resume. But the likelihood of him recovering enough to ever stand trial remains unclear.
The judge explained to emotional family members and supporters of the shooting victims that she had no other choice. For a criminal case to proceed, a defendant has to both understand the charges they are facing and be able to assist their attorneys.
“Everything that is happening now is beyond everyone’s control,” Judge Pham said.
Family members told the judge that the longer they wrestle with uncertainty over the future of the criminal case, the more they suffer.
“We are struggling with the system, and yet there is nothing we can do,” said Raquel Ramirez Quiroz, the aunt of one of the victims. “This is just a nightmare and we can’t wake up… I hope this moves faster, because the justice we are not getting is tearing this family apart.”
The judge allowed the family members to speak, despite noting that doing so during a competency hearing was unusual. However, the judge stopped them from commenting directly on Gonzalez’s condition.
“We need justice soon,” said Elisa Griego, who was speaking on behalf of Karla Tovar, the wife of one of those killed in the shooting. “We don’t want to wait years for this person to feel better.”
Gonzalez, who did not speak and showed no obvious reaction to the proceedings, appeared for the first time in court without a helmet he had been wearing during previous hearings as he recovered from his physical injuries. The full written evaluations of his condition are sealed, though attorneys and the judge have spoken very generally of the competency findings the experts reached in open court.
After the March 31 shootings, Gonzalez was quickly charged with special circumstances murder for the killings of Jenevieve Raygoza, 28; Luis Tovar, 50; Leticia Solis Guzman, 58; and Matthew Farias, 9. He was also charged with the attempted murder of Matthew’s mother, Blanca Ismeralda Tamayo, and for allegedly shooting at two officers who weren’t injured.
But Gonzalez’s arraignment – where defendants are asked if they understand the charges they are facing and to enter a plea – was delayed dozens of times over the span of several months, as he remained hospitalized. During that time, Gonzalez’s attorneys repeatedly told the judge that he was not lucid enough to understand the proceedings or communicate with them.
During Gonzalez’s first court appearance in July, his attorneys formally informed the court that they did not believe he was mentally competent to stand trial. Judge Pham agreed to suspend the criminal proceedings and assigned experts – one chosen by the defense, the other by the prosecution – to evaluate Gonzalez.
After those two experts found that Gonzalez had suffered a traumatic brain injury and was not competent to stand trial, the DA’s office hired a third expert specializing in neurology to evaluate him. Attorneys during Friday’s hearing acknowledged that the third expert’s report did not contradict the earlier expert’s findings.
The judge ordered that a report be prepared outlining what treatment Gonzalez requires and what facility he should be sent to in order to receive that treatment. A Dec.1 hearing was set to discuss that report and for a decision on where Gonzalez will be sent.
Gonzalez’s treatment will be overseen by the state hospital system. He will be periodically evaluated to determine if his condition is improving enough for him to face trial.
A competency finding, which is based on a defendant’s mental condition and cognitive ability during the court process, is different than an insanity defense, which is based on a defendant’s mental condition at the time they are alleged to have committed a crime.
Prosecutors say Gonzalez entered the Unified Homes offices on West Lincoln Avenue armed with a Glock semi-automatic handgun and opened fire. They also allege he had a backpack filled with pepper spray, handcuffs and bicycle cable locks he used to secure the gates to the business complex.
The prosecutors have not outlined an exact motive for the shooting, though they have generally indicated it is believed to have stemmed from a personal and business relationship between Gonzalez and the victims. Gonzalez’s wife or ex-wife used to work at Unified Homes.
Should the case eventually proceed, the DA’s office has not yet signaled whether they would seek the death penalty, and the defense has not indicated whether they were considering pursuing a mental health defense such as not guilty by reason of insanity.
Source: Orange County Register