By GARRETT NEESE
ONTONAGON - Nearly two years after Ruben Gonzales' then-9-year-old step-granddaughters accused him of molesting them, he walked out of the Ontonagon County Courthouse Thursday acquitted of all charges.
Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette
Friends hug Ruben Gonzales Thursday after his acquittal on four criminal sexual conduct charges at the end of a four-day trial in Ontonagon County.
A circuit court jury took about 1 hour, 10 minutes to find Gonzales not guilty of two counts each of first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct. If convicted, Gonzales could have be sentenced to up to life in prison.
Family members on both sides of the case were warned before the verdict not to make any outbursts after the announcement. Gonzales showed little outward response as the verdicts for each count were read. The alleged victims sat in the front row and tearfully hugged family members.
After the alleged victims' side of the courtroom filed out, friends and family came up and embraced Gonzales and his attorneys.
"It's guardian angel day today," Barb Gonzales, his wife and the girls' grandmother, said as she hugged attorney Beth LaCosse.
The jury submitted no questions for the judge during deliberation.
Gonzales was accused of digitally penetrating one of the girls on multiple occasions, and also touching the vagina of her and her cousin. Their testimony differed at several points from each other and from their own earlier testimony and statements.
The varying timelines and degree of abuse described by the girls were a key point of both closing arguments.
LaCosse said the inconsistencies weren't just on fringe issues, but on the most substantial parts of the case.
"Everytime they tell somebody, it changes," she said. "They can't even remember what they allegedly said to the last person."
But Prosecuting Attorney James Jessup reminded the jury that an expert in sexual abuse said it was normal for children to block traumatic events, and to be less able than adults to remember the chronology of events.
"She's a kid," he said of one of the girls. "She's not a memory bank, she's not a computer. She's a kid. She remembers what she can, and puts it in the order she can."
After the verdict, attorneys said they believed those discrepancies were the main sticking point for the jury.
"We just knew that this was something more created than actually really happened," LaCosse said. "I'm very happy for the family, and I'm happy for the community to get past this. I understand it's a trauma for the other side, but it's time to move on."
Steven Benson, also an attorney for Gonzales, celebrated the end of a long wait for his client.
"Two years of absolute torture for Ruben Gonzales is finally over, and I couldn't be happier," he said. "An innocent man doesn't deserve to go through two years of what he went through."
Jessup said he also believed the jury had issues with the girls' credibility and the variations in their accounts of the incidents.
"It was a fairly quick verdict - I don't think (the jury members) got past the inconsistencies," he said. "I didn't talk to any of the jurors, but that would be my guess."
But Jessup said he couldn't think of anything he would have done differently.
"You're presented with the evidence, and you have to go with that," he said. "I talked with the girls, I believe the girls, I believe this is a case that should have gone to trial. The jury disagreed with what I believe the outcome should have been. But that's our system, and I'm comfortable with that, because that's what I believe in."