By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Arthur Carmona and his two cousins were at a Fullerton nightclub on the evening of Jan. 27 to hear '80s music—not to fight. So when Carmona saw a Toyota idling next to the only available space in an otherwise packed parking lot, he politely waited to see if it would pull in first. When the Toyota failed to make a move, Carmona pulled into the spot. As he got out of the driver's seat, two young men got out of the Toyota and marched up to him.
"That's my space," one of them said.
Carmona suggested they flip a coin. He called tails and won the toss.
"You got a problem with that?" he asked.
The two men said nothing, but walked away angry. A few minutes later, Carmona's cousin was refused entrance to the club for failing to meet its dress code, so the trio went back to discover that someone had keyed his cousin's brand-new car; a ribbon of paint dangled from its side. Carmona thought he knew the criminal masterminds behind the assault. He went through the parking lot until he found the Toyota and began scratching it. And then, as a kind of flourish, he dented the car with a heavy-duty flashlight.
While he was working with the flashlight, Carmona looked over his shoulder and saw a Fullerton police officer standing just feet away. The cop had a gun, and the gun was pointed straight at Carmona.
This wasn't the first time Arthur Carmona had looked down the barrel of an officer's gun. Eight years earlier, then just 16 years old, Carmona was walking down the street when a Costa Mesa police officer arrested him at gunpoint for the recent armed robberies of a Denny's and a Juice Club in Irvine.
There was never any physical evidence linking Carmona to those crimes, but he vaguely matched eyewitness descriptions of the assailant. Even so, none of those eyewitnesses identified Carmona as the gunman in a lineup. That didn't stop police. They retrieved a Lakers cap linked to the crime and placed the hat on Carmona's head. Yes, some eyewitnesses agreed, that looked like the guy in the robberies. During his interrogation with Irvine detectives, police repeatedly lied when they told Carmona that they had evidence—including videotape—proving that he had committed the robbery.
Charged as an adult, Carmona was sentenced to 12 years in prison. But after the Weekly and Los Angeles Times columnist Dana Parsons began poking holes in the case, eyewitnesses recanted their testimony. On Aug. 22, 2000, Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett Dickey considered the overwhelming evidence that Carmona had been convicted of a crime he didn't commit and ordered him released.
Instead of apologizing for bad police work, overzealous prosecutors and Carmona's two years in state prison, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told Carmona he was lucky to be walking free and blamed the media for ruining his case.
"Arthur, it's a rare event that a convicted defendant gets this kind of break," Rackauckas warned. "You are getting a second chance. Don't let yourself or your supporters down. When you get out, find a job, improve your skills, [and] have a good and productive life—do not commit any crimes!"
After getting out of jail, Carmona moved to San Diego and got a job installing carpet with his father. The work kept him busy and out of trouble. With his mother, who works as a paralegal, he's also traveled to Sacramento to meet with groups like the California Innocence Project, which seeks to free wrongfully convicted inmates in the state's prison system.
Carmona spent the next five days in jail waiting to be arraigned for a crime that normally would result in a two-hour jail stint and a modest fine. At his Jan. 31 arraignment at a county courthouse in Fullerton, Carmona overheard the deputy district attorney handling his case say that, because this was a third-strike arrest, Carmona would be charged with felony vandalism and likely spend the next four years in state prison.
That's when a weird case got a little weirder. Carmona's mother, Ronnie, called the one person she knew could help Arthur: Nadia Davis-Lockyer.
Eight years ago, Nadia Davis was a young Orange County attorney and Democratic Party activist who had taken an interest in Carmona's case. These days, she's the wife of the most powerful law-enforcement official in California, Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Just hours after hearing from Ronnie, Davis-Lockyer gave her husband a copy of Dickey's court order showing that Carmona's felonies had been vacated. The next day, Carmona's prosecutor acknowledged that, in fact, he had no criminal record.
"Bill is the boss of the district attorneys in California, but he defers to local control," Davis-Lockyer said. "He doesn't get in the middle of things unless he sees a serious breach of ethics. I'm glad that the DA agreed to modify how they are handling this, but they should have taken care of that problem immediately. The sad thing is that Arthur spent five days in jail for this."