Details Clear Gunfire Suspect

Times Staff Writer

While Arturo Hernandez Torres was spending eight months in jail wrongly accused of involvement in a drive-by shooting that wounded a 13-year-old boy, he couldn't work, lost his apartment and missed the birth of his first child.

But the attempted-murder charges against him were dismissed this week after a tenacious defense investigator and his booking mug practically proved he could not have been one of the two men who sprayed bullets into a crowd of children playing in an Anaheim neighborhood.

"What people should take away from this situation is that the system works. When prosecutors found out the evidence wasn't there, they did the right thing," said Deputy Alternate Defender Michael Camber after a brief hearing in a Fullerton courtroom. There, prosecutors formally dropped the charges Monday, the day his trial was scheduled to start.

Because the 31-year-old laborer was in the United States illegally, living in Anaheim for the last few years, he was deported Tuesday. The mother of his child remains in O.C.

Police had linked Torres to the shooting because he was in a truck on Bush Street on Feb. 23, the same day two men -- also in a truck -- fired 17 to 20 bullets from an assault rifle, Camber said. The 13-year-old, the sole victim, was struck near the heart.

Camber said that when he took Torres' case, he was unsure of the man's innocence. At least one witness had identified Torres as one of the shooters.

"His alibi was not good, the prosecution's witness had no reason to lie, and Torres had been in the area the same day," Camber said.

But defense investigator Lubna Debbini wasn't convinced. She repeatedly interviewed shooting witnesses from the area, where Torres visited friends often.

After talking to dozens of witnesses, including neighborhood children who affectionately called Torres "Indio," Debbini said she became convinced that prosecutors had the wrong person.

To begin with, witness descriptions of the shooter did not closely resemble Torres. And the witnesses painted a portrait of Torres that did not mesh with that of a coldblooded killer.

Debbini then passed her findings on to Camber, who asked prosecutors to drop the charges.

It took weeks for the district attorney's office to decide. In the meantime, a new prosecutor unaware of the actions of Torres' lawyer took over the case. After reviewing the investigation, he decided on his own to drop the case but wouldn't elaborate.

The most compelling evidence establishing Torres' innocence, Camber said, was the booking photo. Torres had a full head of hair when arrested, and every witness had told police that the shooter's head was shaved. The new prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Marc Labreche, said that because the shooters are still at large, he wouldn't talk about the case other than to say that it became clear that Torres was not involved. "We did not think we had the right person," Labreche said, "so it was our job to do the right thing and let him go."

While Camber was trying to establish Torres' innocence, the defendant was becoming increasingly anxious about his fate.

"He was very concerned that he was in the middle of this whirlwind of accusations when he knew in his core that he was innocent," Debbini said. "He was just desperate to have people believe him."

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