by Arthur Carmona
Originally published in the Los Angeles Times on July 13, 2007
A young man freed after being wrongly imprisoned argues for three remedies.
ONE WEEK after my 16th birthday, I was arrested and charged with crimes I did not commit. I remained behind bars in a life unsuitable for any innocent person. After I served nearly three years of a 17-year sentence, the real facts of my case began to emerge and a judge let me go free. My life, however, will never be the same, and I am determined to change the laws that make it so easy for innocent people to be convicted.
On Feb. 12, 1998, I decided to visit a friend. While I was walking down a residential street, a Costa Mesa police officer stopped me at gunpoint. I was handcuffed and surrounded by other police officers with guns drawn. One officer forced a baseball cap onto my head and made me stand on the curb. I did not know it at the time, but witnesses from a robbery had been brought to identify me in what is known as an "in-field show-up," a procedure that is highly likely to produce mistaken identifications. I was arrested in connection with 13 strong-arm robberies.
My mother was able to gather evidence proving that her 15-year-old son was in school during 11 of the robberies. But we had no evidence to prove that, at 2 a.m. on a school night, I was home asleep while someone robbed a Denny's restaurant, and we had no proof that I was home baby-sitting my 11-year-old sister during the time a juice bar in another city was being robbed.
The getaway driver, a parolee with a long criminal record, admitted being involved in the robberies. He first told police he did not know me and that I was not involved. Then the Orange County district attorney offered him a sentence of two years if he would say I was. He took the plea bargain and his story changed; he was freed from prison before I was.
The court found me guilty of two strong-arm robberies, and I was facing 35 years for crimes I took no part in. The judge sentenced me to 12 years in state prison. I was 16, with no criminal record. I would have been eligible for parole in nine years, with two strikes to my name, one strike away from a life term.
Two and a half years later, just before my hearing on getting a new trial based on a writ of habeas corpus, the Orange County district attorney offered me a deal, and after three years of suffering beatings, threats and degradation in a series of juvenile and state prisons, I accepted it. I signed a "stipulation" — a piece of paper stating that I would not sue any city, county or state prosecutors. Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett Dickey ordered me released and my felonies vacated.
Although I could finally go home, I could not go back to my old life. While I was behind bars, my high school class graduated without me. I was no longer the fun-loving teenager I once was. The criminal justice system took my innocence from me. I have not received any compensation, or even an apology. And the two felonies remain on my record, despite the judge's order and the intervention last year of then-Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.
Now, I am fighting to prevent wrongful convictions and to help innocent people still in prison. I am also supporting a series of state bills that would make it harder for what happened to me to happen to other people. I have traveled to Sacramento in the last two years to urge the Legislature to pass legislation that would help prevent wrongful convictions. Two of these bills passed last year, only to be vetoed by the governor. This year, three bills are being considered.
Senate Bill 756, sponsored by Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), would require the state Department of Justice to develop new guidelines for eyewitness identification procedures. For example, guidelines in other states limit the use of in-field show-ups like the one that led to my wrongful conviction.
Senate Bill 511, sponsored by Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), would require recording of the entire interrogation, including the Miranda warning, in cases of violent felonies. Electronic recording of interrogations would not only help end false confessions but also discourage police detectives from lying during interrogations — as they did in my case by claiming to have videotaped evidence of me.
Senate Bill 609, sponsored by Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), would prevent convictions based on uncorroborated testimony by jailhouse snitches.
The Legislature should pass all three bills, and the governor should sign them. These reforms are urgently needed to prevent wrongful and unjust incarcerations.
Prison is no place for an innocent man, let alone an innocent kid.