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Photo by Myles RobinsonIn a move that brings him one step closer to state prison, 17-year-old Arthur Carmona was transferred Nov. 9 to a youth facility in northern California. The former Costa Mesa High School student was convicted of armed robbery last year and sentenced to 12 years in jail. His transfer this month from an Orange County youth facility to the Preston Youth Correctional Facility outside Sacramento coincides with renewed efforts by his family and supporters to draw attention to his case.
Carmona's conviction has been widely criticized in Orange County newspapers and political circles as a case of mistaken identity. (See Bob Emmers' "The Kid Is Innocent," Sept. 17.) There was never any physical evidence linking him to the crime, a Feb. 12, 1998, holdup of an Irvine Juice Club. Eyewitnesses were unable to identify Carmona as the gunman until police placed on his head a Lakers cap that was tied to the crime but never to Carmona.
Carmona's case became the special cause of Times OC columnist Dana Parsons. Over the course of several weeks, Parsons explored inconsistencies in the district attorney's case against Carmona. He eventually revealed that several jurors who helped convict Carmona now assert they were misled by police.
Carmona's transfer eight hours north to a youth facility in Ione, about an hour from Sacramento, came with no warning to his family or supporters. Ronnie Carmona said she was informed of her son's transfer late that night when she received a telephone call from his former cellmate. She visited her son a few days later.
"The place looks like a former military academy," Ronnie said. "The kids up there are supposed to be mellow, not hardcore gangsters or anything like that, so the tension isn't so bad. He's beginning to adjust, but he's so quiet it's hard to tell how he's doing."
Complicating the matter is the fact that Carmona is just three months short of his 18th birthday. Supporters of the soft-spoken teenager fear that his transfer is actually a step toward sending him to state prison. That possibility is highlighted in grim fashion by the fact that the Mule Creek State Prison lies in plain view of the Preston Youth Correctional Facility.
"Here you have a kid in jail who is still trying to keep up with his studies and go to college," said Ronnie. "The facts are there: he's not guilty. I just hope that somebody steps forward and does something about it."
Some people are. To begin with, the Arthur Carmona Legal Defense Fund is planning a Dec. 15 fund-raiser at the Elk's Lodge in Santa Ana. Event organizers have already invited a number of speakers, including Rage Against the Machine lead vocalist Zack de la Rocha.
"They can send Arthur to prison up to two months before his 18th birthday," asserted Nadia Davis, a Santa Ana school board member working to draw attention to Carmona's plight. "The next 60 days are crucial. We're very concerned about his safety."
Davis sent letters to several key state legislators. "The letters lay out the facts of the case and specifically request a stay of Arthur's transfer to state prison, where he will be in contact with adult inmates," Davis explained. "He's a timid kid and will not survive there."
The letters include new legal documents containing evidence of Carmona's innocence, Davis said, and demand that he be released on parole in preparation for a new trial or dismissal of his charges. "From my conversations with various staffers in Sacramento, my prediction is their reaction will be positive," Davis said.
Concern for Carmona's safety explains why Davis has also requested that Carmona be transferred immediately to a youth facility closer to his parents, preferably one in Ventura.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles office of the Chicago-based law firm Sidley & Austin, which has taken Carmona's case pro bono, has already filed a notice to appeal Carmona's conviction. "The brief for his appeal will probably be filed in the next month," said Debra Muns, the attorney handling the case, who explained that the earliest court date for Carmona's appeal would be the middle of next year.
That's too late to save Carmona from an adult prison and too late to allow the boy to graduate in June from Costa Mesa High School. According to Ronnie, her son is nonetheless continuing his studies behind bars and is already ahead of his class. For its part, Costa Mesa High School has agreed to the rare move of providing Carmona with a diploma once he finishes his courses in prison.
"It was so touching that his school has stepped forward," said Ronnie. "A lot of students are writing him and sending him the school newspaper to keep him in touch with what he knew, which was his school. He doesn't talk about his prom or his graduation anymore, like he did when he was still at the Santa Ana Jail. This is his senior year; this is the last part of his childhood that he's going to have. It's my personal goal to see my son walk down that aisle with the other graduating kids."For further information or to volunteer, call (714) 740-4099. Checks made out to the Arthur Carmona Legal Defense Fund should be sent to 621 N. Linwood Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92701.