Danas Point

Can a Times columnist save Arthur Carmona?

British historian Charles Mackay's Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions recounted the story of Robinson, a boy who told authorities in 1634 that he had witnessed a hound metamorphose into Mother Dickenson, a neighbor. Robinson—who had been urged into action by his depraved father—claimed Dickenson temporarily turned him into a horse and rode him to a gathering of witches. "He told the extraordinary story without hesitation and apparently in so open and honest a manner that no one who heard him doubted the truth of it," Mackay wrote. Excited judicial officers took Robinson from neighborhood to neighborhood in search of other witches. When it was over, the local government had executed eight women and imprisoned 12 others based solely on the boy's "eyewitness" testimony.

Before dismissing l'affaireRobinson as ancient history irrelevant to Orange County's modern criminal-justice system, consider this question: Has human nature—specifically the impulse to believe the worst about the accused regardless of exculpatory evidence—changed over the centuries?

An investigation into a routine October 1998 robbery trial by Los Angeles Times columnist Dana Parsons offers a disturbing answer to that question.

In an era in which far too many reporters dedicate themselves to impressing establishment power brokers, Parsons remains one of the few committed to the best of journalism: exposing injustice. From May 7 to May 16, the veteran newspaperman dedicated four consecutive columns to the plight of 17-year-old Arthur Carmona of Costa Mesa. The soft-spoken special-education student had a clean record—except for one bicycle-helmet violation—before he was incarcerated 15 months ago for the February 1998 robberies of a Costa Mesa Denny's restaurant and an Irvine juice bar. Carmona lost his freedom 30 minutes after the robberies; police claimed he matched a hilariously vague "partial description" of one of the robbery suspects. Based solely on eyewitness testimony and the assurances of Irvine police and Deputy District Attorney Jana Hoffman, the jury voted to convict. Carmona—who has maintained his innocence—now faces 30 years in prison.

But Parsons has proved that there is reasonable doubt about the teenager's guilt. In his column "Can Justice Be Blinded by Eyewitnesses?" Parsons wrote: "There is a large body of reliable research indicating that eyewitness testimony, while potentially reliable, is fraught with potential error, especially when race is part of the equation. But that is not the only thing that fuels my consternation in this case. It is the very nature of eyewitness identifications and how they were obtained that bothers me."

That consternation prompted the Times reporter to study the more than 700 pages of trial transcripts and interview jurors, the prosecutor, defense lawyers and key witnesses in the case. The result? A devastating indictment not just of what we'll generously call sloppy police work, but also of Hoffman's entire prosecution.

Among Parsons' findings:

• No physical evidence—no fingerprints on the gun, at the crime scenes or in the getaway car—linked Carmona to the robberies, a key fact that didn't dissuade Irvine Police Detective Gary Cain, who must have gone to the Saddam Hussein school of justice. Turning the presumption of innocence on its head, Cain told Parsons that a lack of evidence doesn't exonerate Carmona, either.

• In hopes of tricking the then-16-year-old Carmona into a confession, police lied repeatedly during interrogations; at one point, for example, detectives falsely claimed a videotape from a Texaco gas station near one of the robberies proved he was the gunman.

• Detectives could not find any link between Carmona and his presumed accomplice, a 33-year-old Costa Mesa resident who confessed and is now in prison.

• At the time of his arrest immediately after the crimes, Carmona's clothes did not match the gunman's outfit, according to two witnesses.

Most incredibly, however, Parsons learned that police may have rigged their suspect lineups against Carmona when three crucial witnesses initially declined to make positive identifications. After the witnesses said the gunman had been wearing a cap, police took a Los Angeles Lakers cap found in the getaway car and put it on Carmona. Seeing the gunman's cap on Carmona's head convinced the witnesses he was the right suspect. The cops didn't tell the witnesses that nothing linked Carmona to the Lakers cap. When Parsons asked if such a misrepresentation was serious, witness Christine Hoffman said, "Oh, yeah."

Nevertheless, Deputy DA Hoffman (no relation to the witness) remains publicly calm about the 747-sized holes in her case. She defiantly has said she remains "absolutely, 100 percent" certain Carmona is guilty. On May 14, Hoffman dismissed pesky questions about Carmona's link to the Lakers cap, challenging reporters to review the case's massive transcript, in which, she claimed, they would find that at least one witness (Kenneth Cashion) testified that he positively saw Carmona get into the getaway car.

"I suspect she thought they wouldn't bother to look it up," wrote Parsons. "So I accepted the invitation." Then the Times columnist dropped the gavel on Hoffman, quoting directly from the trial transcript.

Hoffman: That person running across the street [to the getaway car], would you recognize him if you saw him again? Cashion: No.

Despite such potent testimony for Carmona, he still spends his days locked in the Santa Ana jail. He awaits word from Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey, who will soon decide how many years he will spend in prison. Mark Devore, Carmona's attorney, is feverishly trying to persuade the judge that a new trial is necessary. Devore told the OC Weekly that publicity from Parsons' columns has boosted his client's shot at justice. A hearing is scheduled for June 4. On that day, Hoffman, Devore, a shackled Carmona and—no doubt—Parsons will watch as Dickey rules.

Concerned? Send contributions to the Carmona Legal Defense Fund, 806 N. Park Center, Ste. 92, Santa Ana, CA 92705.
 
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