A man facing a life sentence for having a quarter-sized gang sign tattooed on his 7-year-old son's hip let out a long sigh Friday when a judge said the act was not aggravated mayhem, a charge normally reserved for crippling attacks.
Instead Enrique Gonzalez and his friend Travis Gorman will face the lesser charge of cruel and inhumane treatment of a child in a notorious case that has captured worldwide attention. With gang enhancements, they now face seven years in prison.
"Hallelujah," said Gorman's mother-in-law, Alisa Quillen, whose says her own numerous tattoos tell the "story of my life."
During preliminary hearing testimony Monday, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Hillary Chittick questioned whether a small tattoo is a permanent and painful disfigurement worthy of a potential life sentence that comes with a mayhem conviction, then asked to think it over.
The defendants were not charged with the one crime that defense attorneys agreed they deserved: applying a tattoo to a child under 18, which in California is a misdemeanor that carries a six-month sentence.
"It shows this case isn't about justice," said Public Defender Manuel Nieto. "It's about the DA's ego."
Prosecutor William Lacy declined to comment as he left the courtroom.
During questioning Monday of the boy's pediatrician, Nieto raised the issue of other painful and scarring procedures to which parents subject their children, such as ear piercing and circumcision.
On Friday, Chittick, a former public defender, questioned Lacy over the legal definition of mayhem and whether a small tattoo, which is being removed, meets the test.
"Say I'm stabbed with a pencil and I have a mark on my hand, is it your contention that anything that creates a visible, permanent injury constitutes mayhem?" she asked.
In dropping the most serious of the charges, Chittick said case law on aggravated mayhem has treated it as a crime more closely associated with disfiguring beatings, shootings and stabbings.
Just like dad?
Outside the courtroom, Gorman's family was eager to tell their side of the story, which supported the defense contention that the boy asked his father for the tattoo, saying: "I want to be like you."
Gorman and Gonzalez are both members of the Fresno Bulldogs, a notorious street gang that has been the focus of intense police action for three years. The Bulldogs take their name from the mascot and moniker of California State University, Fresno, and wear the school's athletic apparel.
Gorman apparently tattooed friends, though he lacked a license. In April, Gonzalez went to Gorman's house to have one applied to his chest and brought his son along.
"They didn't hold him down, he said he wanted it," said Meriah Ramirez, Gorman's girlfriend, who said she saw the encounter.
Whether the boy asked for it or not, Gonzalez' public defender, Douglas Foster, acknowledged his client was wrong.
"Mr. Gonzalez recognizes he could have made a different choice," Foster said. "As a parent myself, I realize you have to make hard decisions no matter how badly your kid wants something."
The two were arrested after Gonzalez's estranged wife found the paw print two weeks later and called police.