A Tale of Two Shootings

When it comes to cops and crew-cut Latinos, justice isn't blind -- it's suspect

But under cross-examination by James Crawford, Orejel's defense attorney, Stow acknowledged that the shoebox had been retrieved from under Orejel's brother's bed. While under oath, Stow also acknowledged that Orejel had neither a gang moniker nor any tattoos that linked him to the Alley Boys.

The courtroom phase of the case against Orejel began in December 2002, and was handed over from Gyves to OCDA prosecutor—and fellow Watkins shooting witness—Mark Geller. Besides the two anonymous eyewitnesses, the only witness against Orejel was Stow. In court, Stow testified that his witnesses had seen Orejel fire a gun, but he didn't testify that those witnesses saw Orejel shooting at the Thunderbird that fled the scene.

Because of the lack of any physical evidence or testimony that Orejel shot at anyone, Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno dismissed the most serious charge—shooting at a vehicle. On February 25, 2003, shortly after Briseno's ruling, Geller withdrew the entire case against Orejel—and then immediately filed a new case against him.

The following month, when People vs. Orejel got under way for the second time, Stow's story had changed. This time, he testified that one of his confidential witnesses did in fact see Orejel shooting at the dark-colored Thunderbird. Under cross-examination by Crawford, Stow insisted that he hadn't actually changed his testimony.

"You did not testify that this individual had [seen] a person that he knew as Gus [Orejel] fire the firearm at or in the direction of the vehicle," Crawford said.

"I believe I did testify to that," Stow answered.

Crawford then asked Stow to review a transcript of his previous testimony.

"It appears I didn't," Stow said.

"Is that a 'no'?"

"That would be a 'no,' according to this," Stow said.

Crawford then asked Stow to look at his police report on the shooting, which Stow had typed up about an hour after the incident took place.

"In your report, did you make any mention that [the] witness saw him fire the firearm at a motor vehicle?" Crawford asked.

"It doesn't say that I—that he—saw [Orejel] fire the firearm at the vehicle," Stow testified. "Just fired two rounds."

***

At press time, more than a year after his arrest, the evidentiary hearings surrounding Gustavo Orejel's trial have just finished and the case is about to go to a jury. Meanwhile, to the dismay of his prosecutors, Orejel has posted bond and remains free, pending the outcome of his trial. But attorney James Crawford still hasn't been permitted by the court to interview the two confidential witnesses who supposedly fingered Orejel.

Crawford says he has no idea how he's supposed to do his job without being able to question the eyewitnesses whose identification of Orejel provides the only evidence against him. The situation reminds him of the plot of a Hollywood movie starring Michael Douglas, The Star Chamber, in which judges meet secretly to review secret evidence against suspected criminals, who are then dealt "justice" as the Star Chamber sees fit.

"From the very beginning, Gustavo has adamantly denied being anywhere near the scene of the crime," Crawford said. "There's no physical evidence against my client. And there are no identifiable witnesses—just two secret witnesses, which is tantamount to a 'Star Chamber.' It's unfair to allow the prosecution not to disclose the identity of the witnesses to the defense attorney, particularly in a case where the witnesses' credibility and ability to perceive what happened is so essential."

Crawford said he is particularly troubled by what he claims he heard Deputy DA Mark Geller say during a break from one of Orejel's recent courtroom hearings. "Geller was bragging to another prosecutor about how he routinely charges defendants with life sentences to get them—and their attorneys—to settle their cases, despite the weakness of the evidence," he said.

"Logically, the defendants would be inclined to plead guilty because of their fear over the severity of the sentences if convicted," Crawford added. "It's inherently unfair and unjust to seek a life sentence against someone who has never harmed anyone or ever been convicted of causing anyone a physical or emotional injury. And to have a prosecutor charging people with life counts to strong-arm defendants? I think that's corrupt."

***

In the meantime, the worst thing that will likely happen to Santa Ana police officer Derrick Watkins is that he will be reprimanded or suspended from his job—possibly even fired. If by some bizarre twist of fate he is charged with a crime, there's almost no chance he'll spend even one day behind bars.

There's a bitter irony here, given that two of his fellow passengers, Gyves and Geller, are directly involved in a prosecution that could send Orejel—whose behavior seems no more reckless than Watkins'—to prison for the rest of his life. Because the REO Speedwagon shooting took place in LA County, it's outside the jurisdiction of the Orange County District Attorney's Office. But there's no evidence the agency is conducting an internal investigation into the behavior of its employees who were in the car with Watkins. In fact, according to sources who spoke with the Weekly, the agency is doing everything it can to keep the embarrasing incident under wraps. Given that (outside this paper) there's been only one other story written about this—a whopping 355 words in the Los Angeles Times nearly two months ago—they're doing a pretty good job.

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