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Burrito Defense : It Helps Man Beat a Murder Charge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles jury acquitted a college student of murder Tuesday, persuaded in part by a 2-year-old burrito that was discovered in the defendant’s jacket pocket at the trial’s close and hurriedly introduced as evidence to support his alibi.

Edward Vasquez, a 23-year-old Cal State Los Angeles student, was accused of killing a security guard in September of 1988. Prosecutors claimed that Vasquez, wearing a white T-shirt, had stood in a Central Los Angeles parking lot and, after an argument, gunned down 42-year-old Israel Martinez.

The defendant insisted he was not the killer. He maintained that he was not wearing a white T-shirt and was a short but crucial distance away from the gun battle. Instead, Vasquez said, he wore a green jacket and, as the gunfire erupted, was buying a burrito from a canteen truck parked on the other side of the lot.

The jury already had begun deliberations last week when, after a sleepless night, Vasquez remembered to tell his attorney that his jacket had felt strange--"like there was something heavy in the right pocket"--when he had tried it on for the jury during the trial.

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The jacket had been seized as evidence at the time of Vasquez’s arrest and kept in law enforcement custody. Vasquez had been wounded in the rear--he claimed by a stray bullet--and different interpretations of the jacket’s absence of blood were advanced in the case.

The prosecution contended in the two-week trial that if Vasquez had been wearing the jacket, as he claimed, it would have been bloody. Vasquez’s attorney, Jay Jaffe, asked the defendant to put on the jacket for jurors to illustrate that it reached only to his waist.

On Friday, Jaffe asked to re-examine the jacket and discovered the burrito. The jury was summoned and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg allowed Jaffe to reopen his final arguments, citing “newly found evidence.”

“He didn’t shoot the security guard,” Jaffe boomed to the jurors, “and this proves it.”

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As he spoke, the lawyer waved the foil-wrapped, well-preserved burrito before the jurors, who paid close attention.

“I proved he’s innocent,” Jaffe went on. “This (prosecution) should never have happened. It’s shameful.”

On Tuesday, the jury announced a verdict for acquittal.

Later, jurors said the theatrical burrito presentation had heightened their concern about “inconsistencies in testimony” in the prosecution’s case.

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Jurors said they initially split 8 to 4 for acquittal--before the burrito was retrieved--and reached unanimity on Tuesday.

While the jurors examined the burrito closely, along with the jacket pocket, it was not clear what role if any it had in persuading the four jurors who initially favored conviction to change their minds.

Some jurors said they would have acquitted Vasquez immediately had it not been for a signed confession. Although Vasquez told police, “I didn’t shoot no one; I don’t even own a gun,” hours after his arrest, he later signed a confession, saying he fired in self-defense. He said that the statement had been coerced during hours of police interrogation.

“He naively thought he would say what they wanted to hear and straighten it all out later,” Jaffe said.

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Analysis of Vasquez’s hands one hour after the shooting found no trace of gunshot residue.

Said Jaffe: “I’m just happy that the jury saw through what never should have been a prosecution. He endured a nightmare for two years just because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Chris Gosney, who prosecuted the case, could not be reached for comment after the verdict.

Vasquez was freed on $10,000 bail shortly after his arrest. But he said that he was forced to drop out of college and that his family had mortgaged all they owned to help pay for his defense

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His parents, brother, fiancee and baby daughter were in court with him Tuesday as he mused about his future, which he says includes a return to his job as an elementary school teacher’s assistant and college.

His major? Criminal justice and sociology.

“Maybe I can help others in my shoes,” he said.

Vasquez would have faced 17 years to life in prison had he been convicted.

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