Arrested Development

Arthur Carmonas 10-year sentence was overturned a year ago. Now hes got life

Photo by Jack GouldArthur Carmona drives. It was the first thing he did when he got out of prison. He and his aunt Mona Ruiz, a Santa Ana cop, took off in a car and headed north—no place in particular, just not here. When he got back, he took his sister Veronica to Las Vegas to visit their father's family and to learn something about setting tile. He drives to the gym to work out six days per week. Sometimes he meets people there he knew in high school. He asks them who they took to prom; they ask him what it's like to be inside and what he's going to do with the rest of his life.

He drives at day and at night, drives with the music on loud, drives with no destination in mind. The entire time he was in Chino, the whole place was in lockdown, 23 or 24 hours per day with another guy in a cell so small that they had to take turns, with one guy lying down while the other guy paced the few feet between the beds. When you're driving, you're moving, always moving, away from one thing and on to another. When you're driving, people can't catch your name, can't stare the extra moment it takes to get a fix on where they've seen you before, can't say, "Hey, you're that guy" or, "I'm so sorry about what happened to you."

So Arthur drives, and it makes his mother crazy. Ronnie still wakes up from nightmares convinced her children have been taken from her, and Veronica and Arthur are tired of her sneaking in their room to stroke their hair at night, just to make sure they're real. But she's worried that what happened to Arthur will happen again. Worse, she blames herself for it happening at all.

"If I hadn't been a single, working mom, I could have been there to protect my son," she says between sobs. "When I see him struggle now, when I see him withdraw from me, I think, 'I could have prevented this all from happening.'"

It's ridiculous, of course. The entire American legal system is set up to prevent what happened to Arthur. But there it is. When Arthur came home with a ticket for playing his car stereo too loud, Ronnie thought she'd lose her mind—she was so convinced that there were cops lying in wait to see that Arthur didn't make it home.

And then, one night, he didn't. For hours, she waited and no Arthur. No phone call. He had a pager. She paged it. Nothing. Arthur was gone. Again. It was everything she was convinced would happen, everything she had tried to confront when she forced herself to drive to Costa Mesa—the city where Arthur was arrested—only to catch sight of a police car near Triangle Square and become so paralyzed with fear that she had to pull off the road.

For two and a half years, Ronnie had devoted herself to getting Arthur out of prison, convinced that if she could do that, it would change everything.

It's a terrible thing to be right.

In 1998, Arthur walked into a Costa Mesa manhunt: he was arrested on robbery charges, convicted and sent to prison—all before his 18th birthday. Then he became the subject of newspaper investigations, witnesses recanted their testimony, and jurors had second thoughts about the conviction. It turned out that the prosecution's only piece of physical evidence—a Lakers cap—wasn't Arthur's. A year ago, the DA vacated the conviction.

Arthur was released from prison, and everything did change.

Veronica, the brave soldier, had become angry about the way things turned out, unhappy that her family couldn't be like everyone else's. Arthur was different, too. Not exactly sad, not exactly angry—just different. At the party to celebrate his release, Nadia Davis, one of his attorneys, watched him scan the room—"A habit I picked up," he said. "I always want to know who's in back of me"—and noticed that he started at any sudden movement or noise. Activist Randy Pesqueira was struck that at 18, Arthur seemed old, as if he'd "seen things no one his age should have seen."

Ronnie noticed it while Arthur was still in prison—"Dead to everything," she said. "Like talking to a wall"—but figured things would all work out once he was back outside. But they didn't, and the year since he's come home has not been what she had hoped it would be.

"I knew Arthur wouldn't come back the same, but I didn't know how much different," she said. "It's like we can't communicate anymore. I wish he could be that little boy of mine, but that little boy is gone."

He left at 16, disappeared into two and a half years of life-and-death decisions made every day: don't look weak, watch your back, say as little as possible, keep your head down, don't look weak, don't look weak, don't ever look weak. Once you've been punched when you're down (happened), once you've been cut to the quick (happened) . . . Prison's where metaphors go to die—once you've gotten yourself through that, it's hard to listen to your mom tell you what time to be home.

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