Shantae Molina is Innocent

Now we begin the search for the guilty

In the Molina case, Froeberg was a consistent and ardent supporter of the prosecution. He permitted the jury to hear highly prejudicial and arguably unrelated information about the defendant, but repeatedly blocked the defense from in-depth questioning of police and crime-lab personnel. Time and again, the judge saved Guest and the other detectives from questions that might have proved embarrassing. "I just don't see the relevance," he was fond of barking to the defense attorneys. When it came to the DA, Froeberg was routinely obliging, going so far as to suggest a proper objection when Park came up with a poor one.

Froeberg's questionable behavior was simply illustrated during the critical closing statements. While Park spoke, the judge sat attentively. But in full view of the jury, Froeberg spent the first 10 minutes of Lampel's riveting closing argument shuffling papers and noisily rolling back and forth in his leather chair. His paperwork finished, the judge yawned—and then interrupted to ask Lampel when he thought he was going to be finished for the day.

Motive

Perhaps no one wanted to be in the courtroom less than Armando Mendoza, Molina's boyfriend and Armani's father. The pain of the situation—his baby dead and his girlfriend charged with murder—was evident from the expressions on his face throughout the trial. Nevertheless, the South County elementary school janitor carried himself in a quiet, dignified manner. If anyone was a victim of circumstances in the case, it was Mendoza.

Park asserted that Molina murdered Armani because of a phone call from Mendoza minutes before the shooting. According to Park, Mendoza refused to commit to a precise time for a planned dinner date that night. Molina flew into a murderous "rage" during the telephone call, Park told jurors, and then picked up the gun and shot her baby—before making an "excellent 911 call."

The key witness in the prosecution's theory was Mendoza. But from the day of the shooting through his trial appearance, Mendoza was adamant that Molina was "normal [and] cheerful" during the telephone call. He knew nothing about her being the least bit upset about the timing of a dinner date. (Importantly, no other witnesses did, either.) Mendoza did testify, however, that sheriff's department detectives had repeatedly tried to get him to change his story before the trial.

"It was such a silly, demonstratively false theory," said Vince Rubalcava, Molina's close friend and neighbor.

The infamous Contact Wound

No piece of evidence in the case against Molina was more critical—or more inflammatory—than homicide detective David Guest's pretrial declaration that the baby had died from what ballistics experts call a "contact wound"—a bullet hole produced by a gun fired at point-blank range. The assertion was more than merely dramatic. It also bluntly contradicted Molina's story that she was two to three feet from the baby when the gun she had retrieved to ward off an intruder went off.

Guest used the contact wound at key early moments in the case: once to get a judge to sign an arrest warrant for Molina in November 1998 and again at a January 1999 preliminary hearing to keep the case alive. Froeberg noted that it was the pivotal piece of evidence and ordered Molina to stand trial.

There was one problem with Guest's assertion: there was never—not even briefly—any credible evidence of a contact wound. And Guest and his sheriff's department colleagues should have known it.

Confidential sheriff's department documents obtained by the Weekly show that three days after the Oct. 16, 1998, shooting—weeks before Guest obtained the arrest warrant and three full months before he testified at the preliminary hearing—the detective ordered gunshot-residue tests to determine the distance between the baby's head and the gun when it was fired.

The results—withheld from Molina's defense team for more than half a year—have never changed: there was no contact wound. The gun was at least 18 to 24 inches away, a distance that precisely mirrored Molina's story. A second test confirmed the results of the first.

In one of those peculiarities of Orange County justice, however, the jury would never learn of the contact-wound fiasco. Following publication of a pretrial cover story in the Weekly that recounted how the ballistics evidence had been used by Guest, Park demanded that Froeberg prohibit Molina's defense from raising the issue in the presence of the jury. Froeberg agreed that neither side could raise the contact-wound debacle.

The ruling was a severe blow to the defense, which sought to show jurors that the police investigation was tainted.

Strangely, the contact wound would be raised during the trial—not by the defense but, incredibly, by Park.

Despite Froeberg's pretrial ruling, the DA opened her closing argument with a dramatic prop—a professionally made chart labeled "Evidence of Guilt." Near the top of the chart, as Park pointed out for the jurors, was this assertion: "Bullet wound [was] consistent with a contact wound."

Park underscored the point by immediately telling jurors that Molina's son died from what "appears to be a contact wound."

Park's bald violation of the pretrial ruling sent the courtroom into an uproar. Molina's relatives, who had gathered throughout the trial, gasped.

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