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.
"I love her, but I feel like I don't need her," Arthur said. "I was on my own the past few years, but she still sees me as this little kid. Still wants to make decisions for me. But I can't be a kid. I wish I could go backward, but I can't. People say I'm still young, but I don't feel young."
Which causes problems at home, and there's another problem. The Carmonas don't really have a home. Ronnie, a paralegal, lost her job at Chapman University. Did all the time she put in getting Arthur out have something to do with it? She doesn't know. They lived at Ronnie's mother's apartment when Arthur first got out, but the place was small and cramped with their belongings boxed all around them.
"I think it was a real disappointment to Arthur," Ronnie said. "It looked too much like a cell."
Eventually, the three of them—Ronnie, Arthur and his sister Veronica—moved in with Mona, her son and daughter, and a collection of dolls she keeps on a shelf. It's comfortable, but it can get crowded when reporters, well-wishers, and the expectations of two and a half years keep barging in.
So Arthur drives. And one day, he was gone. No word, nothing. Ronnie, who had given up smoking, found the emergency pack she kept hidden and started again. She paced, smoked, cried and started to vomit. The usual mother's worries—"Was that an ambulance?"—mixed with the bitter reflux of everything that had happened to her family. She kept crying, kept throwing up and then, a day later, just like that, Arthur walked in the door.
Where the hell had he been?
Why hadn't he called—didn't he get her 911 pages?
Pager doesn't work in Mexico.
Why does he do this?
"Because I can," he said and walked to his room.
Arthur Carmona went to prison three and a half years ago for a crime he didn't commit, and his family has been destroyed. It no longer exists.
Say what you will about prison—say it's brutal and Byzantine—but it does not discriminate. For whatever reason you're there, justified or not, you get the full dose; you are subject to the same codes and routines, the repair or damage—smart money's on the latter—done to your soul. Prison's like death; it just doesn't care. And it doesn't care about your family, either.
One of the first things Arthur learned in prison was to cut his ties to his family. Families bring hope. Hope is death in prison. Hope makes a man raise his head, "shows people you're weak," Arthur said.
"They told me, 'You've got to stop writing to your mom,'" Arthur said. "They said, 'This is your home now. We're your family.'"
So he stopped writing. He asked his family to stop visiting him. When they came anyway, he'd listen with a blank expression, offer nothing back. When his mother hugged him, he'd hold her only for a moment and then push her away.
On his first day back, Ronnie and Veronica took Arthur to a storage locker to pick up his stuff. They thought it would be fun, a way to get things back, but the moment the gate went up, it was obvious that what they were looking at was from another time. The high school graduation cap—the classes he took in prison were applied toward his high school credits—and Costa Mesa High School yearbook that Ronnie had bought for him didn't seem to point toward anything except what had been lost.
"That was real hard on all of us," Ronnie said. "To see everything, your whole life, boxed up."
They thought, perhaps, that Arthur's expression, inward, unresponsive, would change as the year went along, but it didn't. Finally, Veronica, who'd had to comfort Ronnie on the way back from prison visits, who felt guilty any time she thought of herself, who sat through the Costa Mesa High School graduation ceremony and asked Ronnie, "Why can't our family be happy?"—Veronica finally lashed out. "You don't even act like my brother anymore," she said. "I don't know why you bothered to come home."
Over the past year, Arthur has been looking for that answer.
He tried jumping right back into things by getting a job and chose possibly the worst job he could: selling clothes at Robinsons-May during the Christmas season. Arthur Carmona is a quiet young man, so quiet that you wonder if he's putting you on. He's big in the chest, bigger since he went to prison and has continued to work out religiously, yet he fairly whispers. This is your jeans salesman.
Though his conviction was overturned, he still told his employer that he'd been in prison—"I didn't want to seem like a liar." Still, he got the feeling they were watching him and was even more uncomfortable with the part of his job description that mandated he keep a sharp eye on potential thieves. He left that job and got another one at a cardboard-box factory. He liked that; he was allowed to do his work and keep to himself. But the energy crunch came, and the company had to cut payroll. Arthur was the last hired and the first fired.
He hasn't had any other jobs, though he's done little things on the side and taken a counseling class. Ronnie says Arthur's a natural counselor. She'd like to start a kind of Mothers for Wrongly Accused Victims for kids like Arthur—she's been in contact with the families of Josh Moore and George Lopez, two other young men put in prison on questionable convictions. But she wants to do more. She's spoken with people, including a Hollywood producer, about making it happen.
"Maybe we can call it the Arthur Carmona Foundation for Justice Reform and Education," she said. "A lot of mothers have approached me about it. We need something like this. I can use Arthur; he's a true asset. You hook him up as a counselor—he has so much to teach kids and adults.
"You know, getting him out now seems like the easy part. There were all these things you had to do, all these deadlines and whatever. You knew what you had to do. Once they get out, that's the hard part; there's no checklist for that. If we were able to create something to help people like this, that would be my way of finding peace with what happened."
But Arthur doesn't seem interested in becoming a poster child or a DBA (doing business as), though he has filed lawsuits against the cities of Costa Mesa and Irvine, which handled his robbery case, and against his first defense attorney, Kenneth Reed, for putting up "virtually no defense."
He still receives letters, gifts and cards from well-wishers. A video of The Hurricane—the Denzel Washington movie about a man unjustly imprisoned—has gone unwatched. "I lived it," he said. "That was my life. I already know what it's about."
When people hear his name, they wish him well and apologize, which just makes him feel uncomfortable.
"To be honest, I'd like to forget it, to move on," he said. "I appreciate it, but I think they should use all that energy for someone else in prison who needs it."
Arthur starts college this week. The stories about him while in prison usually mentioned that he dreamed of becoming a chef. But Arthur says he's interested in studying criminal justice now. Arthur Carmona wants to be a cop.
"I know people are surprised when I say that, but I figure maybe I can avoid someone else going through what I did," he said, as if what happened wasn't happening still.
Arthur Carmona has a new family now. Whether it will be a better or worse family, only time will tell. Ronnie thinks therapy would help, but she doesn't have a job and therefore the health insurance to pay for it. So they'll just have to do it themselves for the time being. Better or worse, it will never be the same. Arthur Carmona went to prison. Nothing can change that, and that has changed everything.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.