2 men freed in murder case
Two Hollywood men who spent nearly four months in a Los Angeles County jail walked out free Friday night after a murder case against them was dropped.
Jordy Ochoa and Aaron Smith, both 20, had been charged with murder and attempted murder in a drive-by gang shooting in April that left one man dead and another injured.
“This matter is dismissed in the interest of justice,” Superior Court Commissioner Henry J. Hall said Friday afternoon, prompting applause by family members sitting in the courtroom.
The men, still wearing their blue jumpsuits, left the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles about 6:30 p.m. Relatives yelled, clapped and rushed toward them.
“I feel like a million bucks,” said Smith, his arms wrapped around his mother. “I knew I was wrongfully accused. I just had to wait it out.”
Ochoa, who held his 1-year-old son, said he felt relieved.
“All this stress is gone,” he said. “It’s finally over.”
Heriberto Osorio, 19, was killed on North Oxford Avenue in Hollywood early on the morning of April 20. Police arrested Ochoa and Smith about an hour after the shooting, and prosecutors filed charges a few days later. If convicted, they could have faced life in prison.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Schneider said the men matched the physical description given by witnesses and were in the immediate area of the shooting shortly after it occurred. Witnesses also identified both men in a field show-up, singling out Ochoa as the gunman. Both men had prior criminal records and police believe at least one had gang affiliations. They both are construction workers.
Ochoa and Smith denied any involvement and told police that they were at a nearby McDonald’s restaurant at the time.
Despite the arrests, Los Angeles police detectives discovered the possible involvement of other individuals in the shooting, Schneider said.
One woman has since been arrested on suspicion of aiding and abetting, but police are still searching for the gunman.
Schneider, who received the case Monday morning because a colleague had unresolved questions and was starting a different trial, spent the week reviewing the investigative reports and defendants’ statements, talking to the detectives and defense attorneys and watching surveillance video from the McDonald’s.
Prosecutors realized that the clock on the McDonald’s camera was incorrect and that a van Ochoa and Smith said they were driving was at the fast-food restaurant just minutes after the shooting.
Although the McDonald’s video did not show Ochoa or Smith, it did show the van -- a different vehicle than witnesses said was used in the shooting, Schneider said. The prosecutor said he also had some doubts about the identification of the two men, because it was dark and the witnesses were emotional at the time.
On Friday afternoon, Schneider made a motion to dismiss the case, which was scheduled for a preliminary hearing next week. “When we put it all together . . . it became clear to me at that point there was reasonable doubt, and, in fact, it was likely they didn’t commit the crime,” he said. “If someone is in custody improperly, we have to release them as soon as possible.”
Ochoa’s attorney, Stephen King, who hired a private investigator and presented some of his doubts and evidence to the district attorney’s office, said the system worked for his client. “This is a case that weighed so heavily on my heart,” he said. “Every once in a while you have a case that just doesn’t add up.”
Smith’s attorney, alternate Deputy Public Defender Juanita McLean, said the evidence was “flimsy.”
“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.
During the hearing Friday afternoon, Commissioner Hall praised the district attorney’s office for its professionalism. He said prosecutors easily could have waited until Monday to make the motion, but chose to push the hearing up until Friday so the men wouldn’t have to spend the weekend in jail.
“It’s nice every once in a while to see everyone is on the same page as to justice being done,” Hall said.
Both men smiled when the judge announced that they would be released.
Relatives said they planned to celebrate the homecoming with parties. Ochoa’s girlfriend, who visited him every week in jail, said she was excited to have her family together again.
“I knew from the start that this was wrong,” she said.
Smith’s sister, Andrea Lopez, said she is angry her brother had to spend so long in jail but she feels vindicated now. “He wouldn’t be the first person to spend the rest of his life in jail for something he didn’t do,” she said.