Jurist in Rape Case Reversal Praises the System
Edward J. Wallin was elated Friday morning when he read that David J. Navarro of Santa Fe Springs had been cleared of a rape at Huntington Beach State Park five years ago.
“I was very excited; I woke up my wife to show her the newspaper,” Wallin said.
Four men pleaded guilty to the rape Thursday; a fifth had pleaded guilty Monday.
Navarro, 25, who had served 3 1/2 years in prison for the rape, not only helped police catch the guilty--he proved his own innocence.
Navarro did it while he was free on bail after the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana reversed his 1982 rape conviction. Wallin was the justice who wrote that opinion.
Prosecutors say that if the appellate court had not reversed Navarro’s conviction, the case probably would have remained closed, and Navarro would have remained in prison for the rest of his 19-year sentence.
Wallin claims that most of the credit should go to the district attorney’s office for reopening the case.
Fair Trial the Issue
But, he added: “I was thrilled to be a part of the correction of this kind of mistake. All my colleagues here feel the same way.”
Actually, Navarro’s guilt or innocence was never an issue before the appellate court.
“Our job was to decide whether he had a fair trial,” Wallin explained.
Wallin and two other associate justices assigned to the case, Thomas F. Crosby and Sheila P. Sonenshine, all agreed that the identification by the victim and her boyfriend was shaky and that there was not enough corroborating evidence. On Jan. 31, 1985, they unanimously voted to reverse.
At no time did they stop to consider whether Navarro was probably innocent, and Wallin said that is the way it should be.
The purpose of appellate courts, he said, is to make sure that people’s rights are protected.
“The Bill of Rights has already lasted more than 200 years and will last for thousands more, and the protection of those rights is far more important than the outcome of any single case,” Wallin declared.
Whether defendants are guilty or innocent, it is up to the courts to see that the rules are followed, he said.
“In something as important as the liberty of an individual, the rules of how we determine to take away that liberty are very important,” Wallin pointed out.
Wallin knows that appellate courts are harshly criticized for reversing murder convictions.
Thinks of Victim
And he also is convinced that the victim in the Huntington Beach State Park case was probably furious at the 4th District court when she learned that Navarro’s conviction had been reversed.
But he points out that careful scrutiny of trial procedures is one way to ferret out the innocent from the guilty, even if it means that occasionally a guilty person’s conviction is reversed.
Wallin, 43, a former Superior Court judge and former federal prosecutor, did not remember Navarro by name when he read the newspaper Friday. But he remembered the case. He recalls that he and Crosby both read every word of a foot-thick trial transcript.
A careful review of Navarro’s case was even more important than most, he said, because of the extreme cruelty the victim had suffered.
“Because of the incredibly heinous nature of the crime, a kind of hysterical reaction develops to steamroller somebody for the offense,” Wallin said.
For example, the victim and her boyfriend, who had been beaten senseless the night of the attack, could only say when Navarro was first arrested that he looked familiar and could have been one of the rapists. But at Navarro’s trial, the victim said she was “totally sure” that Navarro was one of the men, claiming that she saw his face constantly in her nightmares.
Prosecutors have no doubt now of Navarro’s innocence. He was with seven other gang members from Santa Fe Springs when they saw the woman and her boyfriend at the beach on Aug. 14, 1981. One of the gang wandered off, but the rest (except for the one who only watched) beat the man unconscious and then repeatedly raped the woman.
Navarro, it turns out, was the one who wandered off. He was found asleep on the beach and arrested.
After Wallin, Sonenshine and Crosby ordered a new trial for him, Navarro managed to make bail. The Orange County district attorney’s office then talked him into wearing a concealed tape recorder and returning to his old neighborhood to talk to the gang members who had been on the beach that night.
The five who pleaded guilty to the rape this week not only admitted their guilt to Navarro, with the tape recorder rolling, but they all agreed that he had not participated.
The excitement about the outcome, Wallin said, is that the justice system works.
“In Mr. Navarro’s case, the system failed for a while, but the system has enough built-in checks that it as able to somewhat undo the wrong,” Wallin said.
Wallin is not critical of the district attorney’s office for bringing Navarro to trial the first time.
“No matter what rules we establish, we are dealing with a human system,” Wallin said.
In fact, he gives prosecutors most of the credit for correcting the error that sent Navarro to prison in the first place.
“His case demonstrates that there is tremendous concern within our prosecution forces . . . to make the effort to see whether a mistake has been made,” Wallin said. “This is really impressive.”