On the dirty, crowded sidewalk in front of the Los Angeles Criminal Courts building in downtown L.A., Isabel Barajas marched back and forth in hunger and silence for four straight days this spring.
Lawyers, judges and jurors streamed in and out of the dull gray building. Few took notice of the 48-year-old widow dressed in black and waving placards, on a hunger strike to demand justice for a son imprisoned for a 1992 murder she believes he did not commit.
As she grew weaker, Barajas wondered if it would help her cause to collapse on the courthouse steps. "I have to do something," she said in Spanish, before ending her protest because of unbearable migraine headaches. "I've done everything else."
Barajas is not alone in claiming that the justice system imprisoned an innocent man. But even her adversaries agree that her crusade is something different and that this immigrant mother of four--while possibly misguided--has garnered their sympathy, and even some respect, for her efforts.
She has tried practically everything to win a new trial for her 28-year-old son, Aniceto, who is serving a 30-years-to-life term in Tehachapi state prison for killing a teenage boy during the Los Angeles riots.
A slight woman with sad eyes, Barajas has pleaded with the Mexican consulate, local politicians and prosecutors. She has told her story repeatedly on Spanish-language television and radio shows. She even has tried to track down reluctant witnesses in the hard-boiled East Los Angeles neighborhood where 15-year-old Jose Luis Garcia was shot dead. "I have not heard of another case where a mother goes public to this extent" to help her son, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jennifer Snyder, who prosecuted Aniceto in 1993 and still believes he is guilty.
Even Juan Garcia, the uncle of the dead boy, expressed compassion for Barajas after seeing her on television. The boy's parents are too distraught to talk about the case, but Juan Garcia said he hopes the truth--whatever it is--comes out.
"That woman is a mother and she has to find the truth," he said. "I am praying to God to find the truth."
Barajas tells anyone who will listen that her son had a strong alibi: He was working in an auto shop in South-Central Los Angeles and had several witnesses to prove it. A jury put him behind bars, she charges, because he was framed by dishonest cops and let down by an inept defense attorney.
Her chances of getting a new trial are slim, and she knows it. Aniceto's appeal, claiming his attorney was inadequate, was rejected long ago. Still, the mother persists, undaunted.
Grappling With a Prior Injustice
As Barajas sees it, she has been wronged by the justice system in two countries.
She grew up, and started a family, in a small farming community near Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico, one of 12 children with no formal education. In 1975, her husband, Juan, and two of her brothers were defending their corn crop from thieves when a gun battle erupted. Juan was shot in the neck and died. The thieves were never arrested, she said, because they were protected by a local crime boss.
She moved with her three sons and a daughter--Aniceto is the second-oldest--to Los Angeles in 1982, expecting to find a justice system that would protect the innocent and punish the guilty. "I know that there is a lot of corruption," she said. "But I know there are many who are good and who are looking out for justice."
Barajas is short with strong Indian features. She usually dresses in dark colors, like someone in mourning. Her only extravagance is her jewelry--three gold earrings on each ear and, after all these years as a widow, her wedding band. Her Spanish still is laced with rural colloquialisms. After nearly 20 years in the United States, her English is halting but improving.
She settled her family in the Estrada Court housing project in East Los Angeles and found work sewing cushions in a textile plant. When she noticed Aniceto hanging out with neighborhood gang members, she sternly told him: "We may be poor but we are not from the streets."
To keep him out of trouble, Barajas sent then 16-year-old Aniceto to live with her parents in Mexico where for three years he worked in the cotton fields.
Aniceto returned in 1991 and found part-time work in the construction industry. He fell in love with a neighborhood girl whose father owned the auto repair shop, and he earned extra cash helping out there.
"He was very excited the day he learned to change a transmission," his mother recalled with a smile.
Those days now seem like a dream to her.
"We had a pretty good life up until then," she said during a recent two-hour Saturday morning drive to visit Aniceto at the California Correctional Institute, a cement-gray compound in the shadow of Black Mountain in Tehachapi. Barajas doesn't drive, but almost every week she finds a friend or relative to chauffeur her there.
Upon arrival, she knows the security measures: No cameras or tape recorders. No purses. All personal belongings must be carried in a plastic bag, and visitors must remove their shoes and belts for inspection.
Barajas hugged Aniceto, who wore glasses, neatly trimmed hair, a denim shirt and jeans. He has her Indian features, which earned him the nickname "Indio" from his friends.
Aniceto, an aunt, his sister and his mother sat down at a small round table and quickly the conversation turned to his mother's efforts to win him a new trial.
"She keeps saying, 'Don't lose faith. God is greater than this.' I say if God is so great, why am I here?" Aniceto said. He said he is heartbroken by what this ordeal has done to his mother, but he wants her to continue. "If I were guilty, I wouldn't allow my family to waste the money and time on my case," he said, shaking his head. "I would take my punishment like a man."
A religious woman, Barajas lives with two of her children in a South-Central neighborhood. Her yellow stucco home is adorned with paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus on the cross. She said her faith keeps her sane.
"Sometimes I feel like I can't go on and I want to scream at the top of my lungs to let out the pain," she said. But Barajas rarely raises her voice, expressing her frustration by wringing her hands. "I thank God for giving me strength."
Her three other children all believe in Aniceto's innocence, but they worry about the toll on their mother.
"I feel bad for her but we all want [Aniceto] out of prison," said her oldest son, Martin, 32.
Juana Aguinia, Barajas' younger sister, said she has seen her change from an outgoing, fun-loving person to an emotionally drained woman who rarely accepts invitations to parties.
"We invite her but she always says she is too tired," Aguinia said.
Because she lost her husband to gun violence, Barajas said she knows how the Garcia family has suffered from the murder of Jose Luis. At the trial, she tried to express her sympathy but relatives refused to talk to her.
On April 30, 1992, Garcia and about 15 other teenagers, including members of the White Fence gang, used the chaos of the riots' second day as an excuse to skip school and hold a "ditching party" at Monsignor Ramona Garcia Recreation Center in Boyle Heights, according to police reports.
Relatives described Garcia as a happy and intelligent high school student who was called "El Huero" or "the blond one" because he had blond hair and blue eyes. Garcia was not a gang member but hung out with a White Fence member named Julio Ortiz, trial witnesses testified.
About 1 p.m., a group of rival Opal Street gang members confronted several White Fence members in the gym, claiming the park was their territory. Garcia and Ortiz ran toward the nearby pedestrian passageway that stretches over the Pomona Freeway, according to witnesses. Two Opal Street gang members chased them, and in the darkness of the enclosed walkway Ortiz saw four flashes and Garcia fall, he later told police. Garcia was hit twice and died in the passageway.
While other witnesses gave contradictory accounts, Michael Martinez, 16, told police he saw two Opal Street gang members named "Indio" and "Turtle" run out of the tunnel.
The Indio nickname led police to Aniceto Barajas, who was 19 at the time.
Picture Is Picked at Police Lineup
Aniceto admitted to police that he had hung around Opal Street members about five years earlier but denied ever being a full-fledged member. Martinez and three other witnesses picked Aniceto's picture out of a group of six photos as one of the two who ran out of the tunnel.
Aniceto, who had no prior adult criminal record, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
His defense attorney presented five witnesses--including his mother--who testified to seeing him working at the auto shop six miles from the park that day. Barajas, who left work early because of the riots, said she saw her son around 1 p.m.--nearly the exact time of the murder.
But Snyder, the prosecutor, told the jury that most of the witnesses were family members or friends and likely to lie to protect Aniceto. Snyder also suggested that Aniceto could have left the shop, committed the crime and returned in only minutes.
Chances of acquittal seemed to improve when Martinez and another witness recanted their identification of Aniceto. "I was lying all about everything," one teenager testified. But Snyder suggested to the jury that they were threatened by gangs into recanting.
During the trial, Barajas said she often left court at the end of the day and took the bus to interview neighbors around the park in hopes of uncovering evidence to exonerate her son.
At one point, she said, she met two teenage girls who told her they knew the real murderer. But she said the girls refused to testify. The judge would not allow the allegations brought by Barajas into the trial, declaring it hearsay.
The jury deliberated for a week before reaching its verdict--first-degree murder.
Isabel Barajas partly blames the trial's outcome on Aniceto's attorney, Manuel Lopez, a private lawyer she hired with about $2,000 borrowed from family members.
Barajas didn't know it, but Lopez had been disciplined several times by the state bar and was on probation during the trial for sometimes neglecting several previous clients, according to state bar disciplinary records.
Court transcripts show Lopez made no opening statement, and Barajas claims that he never interviewed the alibi witnesses before putting them on the stand. She also charges that Lopez failed to return phone calls from the private investigator who was assigned to the case by the court.
Trial transcripts show that Aniceto asked the judge, Michael A. Tynan, to replace Lopez with a public defender because he felt Lopez wasn't making much of an effort. But Tynan dismissed the request.
In an interview, Lopez said he can't recall many details of the case but defended his efforts. "I knock myself out," he said. "I have a pretty good track record helping the community."
Lopez said he was disciplined by the state bar because of problems with his office staff, not because of his skills. "I realize sometimes they blame the lawyers," he said. "There is no substitute for winning."
Barajas also charges that police manipulated the photo identification process by showing witnesses a color shot of her son amid an array of black-and-white pictures of other men. Investigators say they don't recall details of the photo lineup but deny any wrongdoing.
Aniceto appealed his verdict, partly on the grounds that he was not allowed to replace his attorney. But the appeal was rejected in 1995. Lawyers say that Aniceto's chances of a new trial are slim unless he can uncover new evidence to prove his innocence.
After the trial, Barajas wrote to anyone she thought might help, including then-Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina. Because Aniceto is a Mexican citizen and legal U.S. resident, his mother wrote to the Mexican government and the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles. Garcetti assigned another prosecutor to review the case but afterward decided not to reopen it. The others politely declined to get involved.
Advocate Deems Case 'An American Nightmare'
Among her staunchest advocates is Carlos Rodriguez, founder of the People's Defense Project, a Glendale advocacy group dedicated to supporting the victims of wrongful prosecutions. He calls Aniceto's case "an American nightmare" and says its an example of a seriously flawed justice system.
Rodriguez was at her side when Barajas appeared on several Spanish-language television shows, including "Quien Tiene Razon " (Who is Right) with a Jerry Springer-type format, in front of a live audience.
"I will fight until he is out or I am dead," Barajas said adamantly to applause.
Barajas was recently laid off from her textile job. She is now collecting unemployment benefits but sees this as an opportunity to spend more time on her crusade.
A few days after her layoff, she launched her aborted hunger strike.
Barajas insisted that she was prepared to starve herself, but family and friends convinced her that her son's chances of being released would be even worse if his strongest advocate were to die on the courthouse steps.
When Barajas goes to the prison, she tells Aniceto about her efforts, even when they seem fruitless.
As it was time for his mother to end her recent visit, Aniceto said he is scheduled for his first parole hearing in 2012. But, smiling, he added that he believes his mother can produce a miracle before then.
On her drive back, Barajas stared out the car window at the desert horizon. She said she has a recurring dream of Aniceto, free and at home, playing with his younger brother. Everyone is happy, without a care in the world.
She sighed, broke away from the image. "You wouldn't believe how hard it is to wake up to learn that it is not true."