The Kid Is Innocent

The only question is whether the DA will do anything to free 17-year-old Arthur Carmona

Photo by Myles RobinsonJail corridors. The light gave no shadows. From some distant part of the building came the sounds of a man shouting indistinctly. Echoes, doors closing. The attorney and I looked at each other, a silent countdown, then walked down the corridor to the row of visitor booths. We exchanged a couple of meaningless words. After a time, the prisoner came and sat on the other side of the thick glass.

Arthur Paul Carmona. Now 17 years old, medium height and weight, black hair. A child's smooth, not-yet-formed face. A kid. Fond of skateboarding, football, volleyball, cartoons. Fond of T-shirts and jeans. Now wearing a jail jump suit. I do not know how thick the glass was between us—thick enough, though, to hold back any sounds or smells, to refract the light in such a way that everything on the other side of it seemed to waver, as remote as the bottom of a swimming pool. And behind it sat Arthur, his eyes wide, like those of a diver who had just plunged from a high tower.

We spoke through the glass by means of a telephone. I was constrained by his lawyer in terms of what I might ask him, but asking anything seemed for some reason a difficult proposition.

How are you doing?

Having any problems inside?

How do you pass the time?

What exactly do you say to a 17-year-old boy who may be a 29-year-old man before he emerges again into the world? And thus, the conversation wound on and wound down.

"I've been keeping up with my schoolwork," Arthur said. "I would like to go to college."

I had to turn away. At my side, the lawyer stirred. And down the long, bright distant corridors, the shouting erupted once more, troubled and indistinct. I kept the phone to my ear, but I wasn't sure I could bear to hear anything more.

"My dream is to become a chef," Arthur said softly from behind the thick glass.

A room of documents. They lie in piles around your desk: witness statements, police reports, forensic studies, press clippings, interview notes, records of phone calls, a trial transcript in three volumes. New material arrives and is added to the files. A time line listing the events of Feb. 12, 1998. A transcribed dialogue from the interrogation that followed those events. A report on how Sherlock, the tracking dog, responded (or did not respond) to scents (or lack of scents) in the getaway car. The findings of private investigators who interviewed potential witnesses.

Notebooks. Folders. Words following words. Dates, times, sequences. Finally, you understand that ordinary life is a conspiracy of sequences, that it unfolds personal history according to its own logic. You understand how one sequence leads irrevocably to another. Its own logic. The sequence that led Arthur Paul Carmona to this point in his history. That is why these documents are here; that is why you keep going back to the events of Feb. 12, 1998.

What happened then:

Walid Abdel-Samad was working the counter at the Juice Club in a shopping center at Harvard and Main in Irvine. A winter day, with scattered overcast clouds and rain later. The place sells snacks and fruit smoothies, like Banana Berry, Cranberry Craze, Razzmatazz. Early in the afternoon, Abdel-Samad noticed a young Hispanic man outside the store, standing near the sidewalk bench, looking in the window. This man went away, returned a bit later, sat on the bench, then walked off again. Shortly after 3:30 p.m., he returned once more and entered the store. Abdel-Samad would later recall a number of details about his appearance. A thin moustache and dark, very short hair. Maybe 15 to 18 years old. Wearing blue jeans, a sweat jacket with a white stripe on it, and bright-white tennis shoes. A black Lakers cap on his head. Black backpack.

Abdel-Samad was standing at the cash register; he looked at the young man, meaning, "Can I help you?" But the young man walked over to a snack display against the wall, picked up a couple of snacks, looked at them and put them back. He was holding a dollar bill in one hand. He took out his wallet and opened it. Abdel-Samad could see that the wallet was empty.

Something about all of this seemed strange to Abdel-Samad. Just a feeling. He opened the register and removed all the 20s and 50s and took them to a locked room at the back of the store. When he returned to the register, two women were waiting for him. He took their orders, and then he and the other two employees started making their smoothies. The young man was still standing there with the empty wallet and the Lakers cap and the thin moustache. Now he stepped up to the counter and put the dollar bill he'd been holding on top of the register.

"I need quarters," he said.

Abdel-Samad opened the register. The young man was maybe 3 feet away from him—"arm's length" is the way Abdel-Samad would later put it. The young man reached into the backpack and took out a gun, the barrel of which he pushed into Abdel-Samad's chest.

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