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Judge Orders Carmona Set Free

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

An Orange County judge Monday threw out the robbery conviction of a Costa Mesa teenager whose case came under scrutiny after two jurors and a key witness expressed doubts about his guilt.

Arthur Carmona, 18, who has spent more than two years behind bars, was expected to be set free as soon as prison officials processed his release.

Judge Everett W. Dickey ruled after prosecutors decided not to oppose a request to toss out Carmona’s conviction in the 1998 armed robbery of two Orange County businesses. Carmona’s supporters have argued for months that his case underscores the problems with convictions based entirely on eyewitness testimony.

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This is at least the third case in Orange County in four years in which eyewitness identifications didn’t hold up and convictions were overturned.

As Dickey called an end to the controversial case, Carmona’s mother, Ronnie, walked to the defense table and threw her arms around her handcuffed son. Crying softly, she held him tightly, then kissed his forehead.

“I’m overwhelmed,” she said later. “I just feel like I went through a long, hard labor, but it was worth it.”

Later, at a hastily scheduled news conference, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said his office had no plans to ask for a retrial. He said prosecutors would be unlikely to win a second trial because key witnesses have recanted their testimony in Times reports. He said his decision should not be interpreted as belief that Carmona is innocent.

“He was tried by a fair judge and an honest jury. They weighed the evidence and reached a just verdict,” Rackauckas said, reading a prepared statement. “For us to spend considerable resources on this, I believe, no longer is in the interests of justice.”

Hours after the judge’s decision, several of Carmona’s relatives, supporters and attorneys gathered outside the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange waiting for him to be released. Ronnie Carmona brought a pair of black Levi’s, a gray ribbed shirt and size-12 shoes for him to wear home, where the teenager’s grandmother was preparing a dinner to celebrate.

“It’s been really hard for him, extremely hard, emotional,” Ronnie Carmona said. “There’s been ups and downs, but he always had hope.”

But the family’s euphoria was tempered when sheriff’s deputies said they would have to detain him overnight--or at least until they obtained permission from the state Department of Corrections to release him. There was a chance late Monday that Carmona may have to be transported to the state prison in Blythe, where he was serving his sentence, before he could be set free.

“It’s one more kick in the stomach,” Ronnie Carmona said. “I knew it was too good to be true.”

Carmona learned he was about to win freedom as he waited in a holding cell at the Newport Beach courthouse, where he was to attend a hearing on his plea for a new trial. Getting the news from his attorneys, his eyes moistened and face brightened into “the biggest smile you’ve ever seen,” said Deborah Muns-Park, one of Carmona’s lawyers.

Carmona was 16 when he was arrested in February 1998 and charged with robbing an Irvine juice bar and Costa Mesa restaurant. Police detained Carmona shortly after the juice-bar robbery as he walked along a Costa Mesa street.

When victims of both robberies identified Carmona as the gunman, police arrested him. Carmona and his family professed his innocence for more than two years, noting he was not the type of person to commit such a crime. Active in his church, Carmona never before had been convicted of a crime.

Witness Testimony Persuades Jurors

A jury, however, convicted Carmona of both robberies in October 1998. Persuaded by the testimony of witnesses, jurors rejected defense attorney Kenneth Reed’s assertion that police poisoned the witnesses by placing on Carmona a hat worn by the robber during the identification, even though the hat had not been linked to Carmona in any way.

Doubt about Carmona’s guilt first surfaced in a series of Times columns, starting last year. A key witness recanted her testimony after reading a column that laid out the details of the case. Two jurors expressed new doubt about Carmona’s guilt. But Dickey last year refused to grant him a new trial and sentenced him to 12 years in prison.

One of those jurors expressed joy at Monday’s developments.

“I am so happy,” said Sandra Dinardo, an Aliso Viejo retail store manager. “It’s a great day. I’m very pleased. He wasn’t guilty, and I caved in and went along with the group pressure and sent that boy to jail. . . . The whole thing was a terrible mistake.”

For Ronnie Carmona, Monday’s outcome had been a journey more than two years in the making. She said she moved in with her parents in Santa Ana so that she could spend her money on trips every weekend to visit her son.

“I gave up everything to be with my son,” she said. “When I heard the judge say it, I wasn’t satisfied,” Ronnie Carmona said, standing outside the jail. “I want to see him walk through the doors.”

A large Los Angeles law firm, Sidley & Austin, agreed to handle Carmona’s appeal free of charge after talking to Carmona’s pastor and reading about the case in The Times. Their campaign targeted Reed’s allegedly ineffective assistance during the trial. They said he should have sought to exclude the eyewitness identification because of the hat incident.

Reed said he adequately challenged the identification before the jury. He said he was pleased by Carmona’s release.

“I’m happy that he’s out of custody. . . . I never thought the kid should be in,” Reed said.

Reed arrived in court Monday expecting to testify about the quality of his defense. He brought an attorney, Michael Molfetta, to represent him. After Carmona’s release, Molfetta said Reed was unfairly targeted by the appeals lawyers. He said the prosecution, not Reed, should take the blame for Carmona’s conviction.

“Kenny Reed is the only guy who stood up from the beginning and said he’s innocent,” Molfetta said. “He’s a good lawyer, but he’s been hung out to dry.”

Irvine Police Lt. Sam Allevato defended his department’s role in the case, particularly an officer’s decision to place the hat the alleged bandit had worn on Carmona’s head during a field lineup where witnesses fingered him as the robber. He said officers might repeat the tactic.

“It’s not for me to pass judgment on Arthur Carmona,” said Allevato, a department spokesman. “It’s only my job and my investigators’ job to present evidence to a jury.”

Rackauckas took the opportunity during his news conference to send a stern warning to Carmona.

“Arthur, it’s a rare event that a convicted defendant gets this kind of break. Take advantage of it. Don’t let yourself or your supporters down. When you get out, understand you are getting a second chance. Improve your skills. Work to have a good and productive life. Do not--I repeat, not--commit any crimes!”

D.A. Blames Times for Pressuring Witnesses

And he said that he believed the criminal justice system could not be faulted in the handling of the case. Instead, he said witnesses who identified Carmona during the trial recanted their testimony under pressured questioning from Times columnist Dana Parsons, who wrote 14 columns on the case in a little over a year. Without those witnesses, an attempt to retry the case now “would create a situation in which we would be unable to win.”

He accused Parsons of pushing an “agenda” and asking questions in a way that would encourage “witnesses” to recant their testimony.

“If our office treated witnesses like some newspaper reporters have treated witnesses, we would be run out of town on a rail,” he added.

And he accused the columnist of crossing an ethical line in his work on the case.

“There is an ethical question that reporters have to answer for themselves: whether to observe and report the news, or to make the news. I think Mr. Parsons went over that line of observing news and made news.”

Times editors rejected the allegation. “Parsons pursued the case because he believed it had weaknesses,” said Michael Young, managing editor of The Times’ Orange County edition. “The court’s action today speaks for itself.”

Mark Devore, the attorney who filed Carmona’s first motion to overturn his conviction, said Rackauckas was wrong about the reason the conviction fell apart.

“We won on the facts,” Devore said. “The facts are that Arthur was innocent 2 1/2 years ago. He was innocent today. And he’ll be innocent forever.”

Another of Carmona’s attorneys, Nadia Davis, said she was equally disappointed by Rackauckas’ statement.

“To make a statement like that after stealing two years of his life is totally insensitive and disrespectful. I would ask for a public apology,” Davis said.

Dinardo, the juror who later expressed doubt about her decision to convict Carmona, said she didn’t feel any pressure from Parsons. She voluntarily surfaced to talk about her misgivings about the case last June after a conversation with Devore, Carmona’s first appellate attorney. She said had she known about evidence brought to light recently--including Carmona’s learning disability--she would never have buckled to other jurors’ wishes.

“We didn’t know that Arthur is learning disabled and that prevents him from processing information,” she said. “He appeared very guilty from the get-go because of his hesitancy to answer police questions.”

Casey Becerra, the key eyewitness who recanted her testimony, said she voluntarily telephoned Parsons after a friend had referred her to the first Carmona column. Becerra hadn’t seen the article, but after reading it learned for the first time that no physical evidence had been connected to Carmona. Based on that, she said, she feared she had been “misled” by prosecutors or police and may have misidentified Carmona.

But Monday, another juror, Ramona Holland, said she had no regrets about finding Carmona guilty and said she would do so again if presented with the same evidence.

“We as a jury really struggled with this. We didn’t make this decision lightly, but given what we were given . . . we felt that we had to give a guilty verdict,” said the retired elementary school teacher.

“There was no one brought forth who could give any evidence to support this boy’s alibi,” she added.

She said she has not been following events in the case since the conviction and could not comment on whether arguments made by Carmona’s appellate attorneys might sway her.

Carmona’s supporters also disclosed for the first time Monday that they secretly negotiated with Irvine city officials to win their support for a new trial.

Three or four months ago, Irvine City Atty. Joel Kuperberg approached Carmona’s attorneys and told them the city was prepared to file a brief with an appeals court in support of a new trial, Carmona attorney Davis said.

The legal document would stress, however, that the city admitted to no wrongdoing in the case, she said. Carmona’s attorneys asked for some changes to the proposal, but negotiations fell through, she said.

During Monday’s proceeding, however, Judge Dickey strongly criticized Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran, an attorney, for writing a letter to the court requesting that Dickey overturn Carmona’s conviction. Dickey termed it “totally inappropriate” and said he intended to forward the matter to the State Bar Assn. of California.

Reflecting on the case, Molfetta, the lawyer representing Carmona’s original trial attorney, said the county’s politically conservative juries are often too eager to convict accused criminals.

“Innocent people are convicted in this county, in spite of competent representation,” Molfetta said. “When you have people who are conservative, who blindly believe authority, innocent people get convicted.”

The issue of faulty eyewitness identification also has come to the fore in other places. Said Elizabeth Loftus, a University of Washington psychologist and published expert on the issue: “No question about it--faulty eyewitness testimony is the biggest cause of innocent people being found guilty and hauled to prison.”

* DANA PARSONS

How many others are held on this kind of evidence? A18

* QUESTIONING WITNESSES

Cases show that their accounts, taken alone, can be risky. A18

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Carmona Case Timeline

Feb. 10, 1998, 2 a.m. - Gunman robs Costa Mesa Denny’s.

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Feb. 12, 1998, 3:30 p.m. - A young man wearing a baseball cap and brandishing a gun robs an Irvine juice bar.

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Feb. 12, 1998, 4 p.m. - Police arrest alleged getaway driver Shawn Kaiwi in Costa Mesa

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Feb. 12, 1998, 4:30 p.m. - Costa Mesa police stop 16-year-old Arthur Carmona. Called to the scene, Irvine Police arrested Carmona on suspicion of robbery.

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July 1998 - Kaiwi tells a private investigator working for the Carmona defense he did not know Carmona and that Carmona was not involved in the robberies.

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October 22, 1998 - Jury convicts Carmona after two days of deliberation.

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May 26, 1999 - Key eyewitness Casey Becerra says she was misled by police and prosecutors about evidence against Carmona and now doubts her identification of him.

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June 9, 1999 - A juror describing himself as the “last holdout” says he should have voted his conscience and forced a mistrial.

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June 10, 1999 - Judge denies a motion for a new trial, sentences Carmona to 12 years in prison.

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June 18, 1999 - Juror Sandra Dinardo says other jurors prodded her to vote guilty when she had reservations about the evidence.

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January 10, 2000 - Lawfirm files pro bono appeal on Carmona’s behalf with the state appellate court.

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February 2000 - Appellate court issues order requiring judge to consider new evidence in the case.

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April 14, 2000 - Prosecutors deny allegations they misled a key witness into identifying Carmona.

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June 30, 2000 - Judge schedules a hearing to consider overturning Carmona’s conviction.

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Aug. 21, 2000 - Prosecutors agree to dismiss the robbery conviction against Carmona. Judgegrants the dismissal.

Source: Times reports

Researched by BRADY MacDONALD / Los Angeles Times


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