Like most victims in a holdup, Hector Patino says he got a good look at the gun.
Patino was one of several employees working at an Anaheim commercial loan store on May 17, 1999, when three Latino men entered, stole cash at gunpoint and left. Though Patino says he was closest to the gunman, he wasn't really trying to memorize faces.
"When somebody has a shotgun pointed at you, he wants the money," Patino said. "When he asks you to stay on the floor, and you know he's pointing a shotgun at you, you aren't thinking, 'How tall is he?' or, 'How can I recognize him later on?'
Patino recalls that the gunman "was maybe three or four feet away. He asked me to hand over my wallet and get on the ground. I just [saw him] through the corner of my eye. . . . I didn't want to keep looking at him or do anything stupid. He was pointing the gun at people. He had it beneath his coat, and I noticed it had some tape. It was kind of fast."
Despite his uncertainty, Patino ultimately identified the gunman as George Lopez, a 19-year-old Garden Grove resident. In court, when prosecutors asked him whether the person he identified as the robber in the photograph lineup was present, Patino responded that Lopez "seems to be the same person."
That statement was the closest thing to a positive eyewitness identification jurors got in the Lopez trial. Apparently, that was enough: the jury found Lopez guilty, and a judge sentenced him to 13 years in prison.
Now, Lopez is appealing the verdict. He'll be aided by a recent Los Angeles Times story in which Johnny SantaCruz told reporter Stuart Pfeifer that he—not Lopez—actually committed the crime.
But Lopez will also be assisted by a witness who is certain of just one thing: he's not sure.
Prosecutors oppose a new trial. Ignoring SantaCruz's jailhouse confession, they say Patino's doubts were made clear in last year's trial and are, therefore, not new evidence requiring a second trial.
In a sworn declaration, Patino said, "After careful consideration of the crime . . . on May 17, 1999, I have come to the conclusion that I could not in good faith be 100 percent sure that the suspect presented to me at trial [sic] related to said crime."
"I could not attest with 100 percent honesty that it was him," he wrote. "Time has gone by, and the last thing on my mind was keeping him photographically in my memory. . . . I have my doubts now."
Two of Patino's co-workers have signed unequivocal declarations: they are certain Lopez wasn't the bandit. Neither witness, however, testified at Lopez's trail. One of them, Dora Guaderamma, says she tried to tell both prosecutors and Lopez's original defense attorney about her doubts but was ignored.
These days, Patino says he's frustrated. He says prosecutors, defense attorneys and even reporters have twisted his words to produce statements he claims he never made. Before speaking with the OC Weekly, Patino emphasized that unlike his two co-workers, he doesn't necessarily believe Lopez is innocent. And he says he was never pressured by police to identify Lopez as the bandit.
"They never said, 'Choose this guy.' They asked me to do my best," Patino says. "They said they found one of the people in the photographs with a shotgun that matched the description. Unfortunately, I had a better memory of the shotgun than the guy. I was looking at the gun."