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When a Justice System Stumbles

Every once in a while, you hear about some miscarriage of justice, and you wonder how such things occur. Hard to believe that the system is as fallible as so many doubters attest. Hard to believe the wrongly accused are ever 100% pure.

Hard to believe, until you run into a case like that of the People vs. Emilio M. Meza, starring a 25-year-old meat wrapper who is, by all accounts, your basic nice guy. Until July, the closest thing Meza had to a claim to fame was that he once was named Wrapper of the Year at the La Crescenta Ralphs market that employs him.

That was before he became a statistic in the annals of Greater L.A. Law.

“It was the Fourth of July,” Meza says with a rueful laugh. “I was taking my girlfriend home from Hansen Dam Park. They had a little festival there and some fireworks, and on the way home, around midnight, she had to go to the restroom, so we stopped.”

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The park where they pulled over was in the jurisdiction of the Glendale police, who cruised by and noticed Meza’s pickup outside the public restrooms. When the couple returned, the police asked for Meza’s license and put him under arrest.

“They told me there was a warrant for me for an

armed robbery in Santa Fe Springs. I said, ‘Armed robbery? Santa Fe Springs? Man, I never even been to those places. I’ve lived here in San Fernando and southern Tujunga all my life.’ They said, ‘Well, your name came up.’ ”

Meza’s truck was impounded on the spot; his girlfriend was told to take a cab home.

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For two days, he sat behind bars while his relatives scrambled for $30,000 bail money they couldn’t afford and struggled in vain to make the authorities realize that they had the wrong guy. No one cared that Meza’s world is a solid hour from the part of Greater L.A. where, on Nov. 17, 1996, there was an attempted holdup in a supermarket parking lot.

After two days behind bars, Meza finally learned the particulars of his case: Around 9 p.m. on a Sunday two years ago, a man named Woo Sung Ahn had been attacked in that parking lot. In transcripts from the preliminary hearing, Ahn testified that he had just filled two 5-gallon water bottles from a vending machine. He was loading them in his car when he felt a gun barrel against the back of his neck.

In an immigrant’s broken English, Ahn said he heard “somebody shouting, asking, ‘Give me money,’ something. I saw him very briefly, maybe one second. The gentleman was thin-face and a little bit taller than I am. Probably Hispanic gentleman wearing mustache.”

Ahn had no money and, not turning around, said so, after which the robber grabbed the trembling man’s car keys and ran. Shortly thereafter, police got an anonymous call informing them that the suspect they were after had fled in a gold Thunderbird. The caller gave a plate number. According to Rickard Santwier, the lawyer Meza’s family eventually hired, the plate came back registered to an Emilio A. Meza in Glassell Park.

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Though that Emilio Meza was, the lawyer said, “old enough to be my guy’s father,” and had a different middle initial, the detectives pulled together a photo lineup that included the DMV photo of the younger Emilio. Uncertainly, Ahn picked him out. A warrant was issued for the younger Meza’s arrest, and when the police arrested Meza two years later, Ahn picked him out again, apparently recognizing him from the photograph.

Meanwhile, scant attention was paid to the fact that Meza had a clean record, had spent the weekend of the crime at Camp Pendleton training with the U.S. Army Reserves, had never been near a gold T-Bird and fit just about nobody’s profile of a criminal.

“He’s just a really nice kid,” said Jeanne Kamalski, his store manager. “When this happened, we were all, like, ‘What?’ ”

Meza’s family has collected numerous character references from those who know Emilio, and two have written on his behalf to The Times. But lineups trump niceness. The case is set for trial next month in Norwalk Superior Court.

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Too bad. One prosecutor confided that the case is “not very strong,” and the preliminary hearing transcripts show why. Several times, the poor robbery victim repeated that he had scarcely glimpsed his attacker, adding: “Even though I’ve been here in this country for 15 years, sometimes if a Hispanic wears a mustache, it’s very tough for me to tell. . . . There are too many look-alikes.”

“There’s a saying sometimes said in jest,” defense lawyer Santwier said during cross-examination. “ ‘They all look alike to me.’ ”

“Yes, sir,” Woo Sung Ahn replied. Which speaks volumes, both about the fallibility of our system, and ourselves, in Greater L.A.

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Shawn Hubler’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com.


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