The Kid Is Innocent

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

He was put in a holding cell for later transfer to jail.

It was 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 12, 1998, when Ronnie Carmona got the phone call, when she listened to the police officer telling her that her son had been arrested for armed robbery, when she slumped against the wall in the winter-dim apartment, when she waited for the words to rearrange themselves magically into some other sentence that might make more sense, when she thought, "How could this be? How could this be?"

The first thing she did was page her sister, Mona Ruiz, who is a police officer with the Santa Ana Police Department. Ruiz called the Costa Mesa Police Department, identified herself as a fellow officer and Arthur's aunt, and talked with a supervisor. He asked her if she knew Kaiwi, if he might be related to the family in some way. He asked if Arthur might have had access to her weapons. The supervisor seemed confused and uncertain, Ruiz remembers, about why exactly Arthur had been arrested.

That call finished, Ruiz and Carmona talked through much of the night. They repeated to each other the refrain that had first come to Carmona on the phone with the police: "How could this be?" They questioned each other about every aspect of Arthur's life. And none of it made any sense. Carmona and Ruiz had been in gangs when they were younger, and both had made it out. They had relatives touched by violence. And because of this, they had both taken special care with Arthur, trying to give him decent values, always trying to counsel him away from the evil that could so easily sweep up children. And they were sure they had succeeded. Arthur respected the law and the police. If his friends would complain that you couldn't trust the police because they were always hassling you, Arthur would say, no, that's not true, my aunt's a cop, and she doesn't do that. He had never shown a particular interest in guns. There were only those couple of times when he got in trouble, and that wasn't major trouble anyway. He had a sense of responsibility: when his mom and dad had first separated and money was real tight, he had gone out and taken a job. He had become involved in his aunt's church. He looked after his sister. He respected his 10 p.m. curfew. He wasn't a great student, but that past year, he had been really trying and was getting B's and C's.

How could this be?

Through the night, they talked of the Arthur they knew. The Arthur who was so shy and reserved with strangers. Could he have walked into a store and pointed a gun at someone's chest and demanded the money?

It couldn't be.

And yet, there remained in the back of the mind the little, evil, nagging worry.

And so, when Carmona first went to see her son in jail, she sat down across from him and looked him square in the face. She did not know any good way to ask the question she had to ask. But she had to hear him say it, and so, finally, she just came out with it.

The pain that flashed across his features haunts her still. The unspoken accusation: Mom, how could you even have to ask me?

There was one question that never required asking.

It happens often, the world being what it is, that the child, the beloved hijo, is arrested. And the mother weeps and tears her hair, and the friends gather 'round and wonder how this could have happened. But in the end, the whole system seems too daunting, too remote, too much a part of some other world. And finally, they shrug in resignation. The will of God.

But in this case, there was never any question of that. The two sisters, Ruiz and Carmona, had fought hard for what they'd accomplished in their own lives, both fighting their way out of the gang lifestyle that eats up so many Latinos. They had fought hard for Arthur's life, too, and now they did not intend to see it torn away without another fight.

They hired a private investigator: Dave Marshall, a former Santa Ana police officer whom Ruiz knew. Marshall made a promising beginning. Trying to establish an alibi, he tracked down some of the people Arthur had spoken with the day of the robbery. He began interviewing the police eyewitnesses who put Arthur in the Juice Club with a gun in his hand and discovered that their identification of him might not be all that solid. He learned that police—even though they had no additional eyewitness identifications—were looking at Arthur in connection with several other similar robberies, which was good for Arthur, since it could clearly be established that he was in school at the time some of those occurred. Marshall also learned about the business of the hat, how the Lakers cap had been brought from Kaiwi's apartment and placed on Arthur's head, perhaps prejudicing the eyewitnesses and destroying any possibility that it could be tested for traces of the real robber. That this had been done flabbergasted Marshall: never in all his time as a police officer had he seen such a flouting of the principal that the chain of evidence must be maintained inviolate.

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