By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Armed with a fearsome scowl and standing at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Orange County gangster Ramiro Alex Huerta is probably accustomed to people listening attentively when he speaks.
But Huerta, 38, can't get anybody to listen to him nowadays.
Following a 2008 attempted-murder conviction and longer-than-life prison sentence, he wants everyone to know he has been railroaded by the criminal-justice system, including dirty sheriff's deputies, conniving lawyers and callous judges.
Huerta—who goes by the moniker "Oso" (Spanish for "Bear") in the La Habra-based Monos criminal street gang—is incredulous because, he says, both the prosecutor and his own defense lawyer worked to convict him, a scenario he calls un-American. While inmates often make wild claims, this one has evidence behind it: Lawyers on both sides kept potentially key exculpatory information from the jury.
Jose Garcia, the alleged jailhouse-stabbing victim and a member of the Santa Ana-based F-Troop gang, insists Huerta and Carlos Luna, a co-defendant and a member of the Stanton-based Crow Village gang, are innocent. In fact, Garcia took the extraordinary step of sending Superior Court Judge M. Marc Kelly a letter exonerating the two defendants. But nobody called Garcia to testify at the trial.
When that scenario didn't bother a California appellate court, Huerta took his case to the federal judiciary. He sent officials a neatly handwritten complaint that blamed his attempted-murder and assault-with-a-deadly-weapon convictions on an inept defense lawyer and a win-at-all-costs prosecutor. Absent Garcia's testimony, he asserted that jurors had to rely on the word of two deputies, James Van Patten and Dale Clifton, who claim they witnessed the attack inside the Theo Lacy Jail.
But Huerta insists the deputies fabricated the story. He said the allegedly intended murder weapon, a shank, was never found. He also noted this eyebrow-raising issue: According to the Orange County Sheriff's Department, jail-surveillance video that could have supported the officers' story "began malfunctioning" at the time of the incident.
Not calling Garcia to testify, failing to recover a weapon and claiming a mysteriously missing video are "red flags" that signal the "unreliability of the process" that permanently robbed him of his freedom, argued Huerta.
This month, U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner, a George W. Bush appointee to the bench, received the findings of Jean P. Rosenbluth, a reviewing magistrate and former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles. Acknowledging her interpretation of the evidence tilted to favor the government, Rosenbluth wasn't the least bit suspicious of the video-malfunction excuse that's routinely employed following complaints of deputy wrongdoing. She accepted the jail deputies' stories as gospel.
To Huerta's immense frustration, Rosenbluth also seemed to sanction the notion it was legally fair the jury never heard Garcia's exculpatory testimony because of a slippery-slope argument: The victim is a gang member, and gang members lie; therefore Huerta must be guilty if a fellow gangster says he's innocent.
Rosenbluth concluded that nothing in the conviction had been "unreasonable."
"It would be an understatement to say that short shrift was given to [my] claims," Huerta wrote after reviewing Rosenbluth's recommendations. "This is actually offensive to traditional justice in America. No need for defense witnesses? No need for citizen jurors to determine material facts. Voodoo and the government's Ouija board will suffice?"
Without adding his own explanation, Klausner sided with Rosenbluth. The ruling has stark consequences for Huerta. After he spends the rest of his life in prison and dies, he'll still owe two additional years of incarceration.
Sadly, Huerta's experience is hardly unique. Earlier this month, I wrote about Jesus Arturo Aguirre, an 18-year-old Eastside Buena Park gangster who got a life-in-prison sentence on April 6 for his secondary role as a 16-year-old in a 2010 attempted murder of a rival hoodlum, who—as in Huerta's case—insisted Aguirre was innocent.
RAPIST ANAHEIM COP DEMANDS NEW TRIAL
Bradley Stewart Wagner, the Anaheim police officer who targeted three illegal immigrants near Disneyland for violent sexual assaults while on duty, is nothing if not persistent. This week, Wagner—who managed to stall his criminal case for more than five years—sent his criminal defense lawyer to the California Court of Appeal in Santa Ana with hopes of overturning the generous four-year prison sentence he negotiated in a 2010 plea bargain.
Farah F. Azar, the most recent of at least four defense lawyers who've represented Wagner, told a three-justice panel that Superior Court Judge Walter P. Schwarm violated the dirty cop's constitutional rights by ignoring overwhelming evidence that Wagner had been exceptionally high on prescription drugs in court when he agreed to the plea deal.
"At the time of the pleas, he was under the influence," Azar said. "Courts must make sure when a defendant enters a plea, he knows what he [is] doing. . . . [Wagner had] consumed mind-altering drugs, [and] we submit there was an abuse of [the judge's] discretion [by not voiding the guilty plea]."
But Deputy Attorney General Karl T. Terp reminded the justices that Wagner, who is housed at the California Institution for Men in Chino, has repeatedly raised and lost the same argument [see "Mr. Wagner (Finally) Goes to Prison," Dec. 22, 2010]. After the cop signed the plea deal that chopped seven years off the maximum potential prison punishment and acknowledged in writing that he wasn't under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Schwarm spoke one-on-one with him. In the judge's view, Wagner "appeared to be cognizant," said Terp.
Azar also blasted Jennifer Keller, Wagner's lawyer at the time of the plea deal. She accused Keller, one of the county's most prominent defense lawyers, of professional misconduct for not adequately explaining to Wagner the consequences of being labeled a sexually violent predator, a designation that could keep him incarcerated beyond the four-year term. Keller's performance violated her "duty-bound" oath, according to Azar.
Terp said the appellate court should reject Wagner's complaints because neither the judge nor his lawyer saw signs of intoxication. He noted that the cop submitted a "fabricated" doctor's letter to bolster his intoxication claims and faked ignorance of the criminal laws. "It defies logic for Wagner, veteran cop on the verge of retiring, to say he had no knowledge of the sexual violent predator [statute]."
With Wagner's wife scribbling circles on a legal pad while sitting in the audience, Azar made one last attempt before Justice Kathleen O'Leary cut her off for rambling.
"He was ready to go to trial," Azar said. "He wanted a trial. Let's go to trial. That's all we're asking. My client is innocent. . . . He didn't have a reasonable understanding [of] what was happening."
The appellate court will issue its opinion in the coming months.
This column appeared in print as "Government 'Voodoo' Convicts OC Gangster: Ramiro Alex Huerta accuses officials of hiding exculpatory evidence from his jury."