Photo by Nick SchouRichard Flores is convinced that going to jail for a crime he didn't commit saved his life. The way he sees it, he might have lost more than two years of freedom. When he got busted, his life was a mess: he had recently been shot by rival gang members and was several weeks into a heroin binge that could have killed him.
Getting arrested changed that. It happened shortly after 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 2, 2000, when Tara Snavely sat parked in her white Mercedes-Benz outside her boyfriend's Santa Ana apartment. As she waited, two crewcut-sporting, young-looking Latinos approached the car. She later testified that one of the men came up to the front passenger window, pointed a gun in her face, and said, "Get the fuck out of the car right now."
Fifteen minutes later, police began searching for the car near the Santa Ana-Irvine border. They found it in the parking lot of a Motel 6 near the 55 freeway, where it had just crashed into a parked van. Within an hour, Santa Ana police arrested Flores.
A 27-year-old felon then living at the motel, Flores had been staying there for several weeks, shooting heroin and supporting his habit by selling crack to fellow motel guests. Two eyewitnesses told police he was in the room all day—right up to the minute police pounded on the door.
That may explain what happened next: when police brought Snavely to identify Flores at the motel, she didn't recognize him. Police found fingerprints on the car, but they didn't belong to Flores. Police arrested Flores, charging him with possession of drug paraphernalia, stolen property, and hit and run.
But the next morning, an Irvine Police Department K- 9 officer, who said he was right behind the Mercedes when it crashed, filed a report on the incident. "I positively identified Flores as the suspect I was looking for," the officer wrote.
Flores had every reason to think he would be convicted of the carjacking. An inactive member of the Santa Ana Lopers Street Gang, he had two prior felony convictions on his record and faced somewhere between 25 and 35 years in state prison. Yet he refused to plead guilty.
"I'm no saint or anything, but I didn't commit this crime," he said in a recent interview. "I had nothing to do with what happened to that lady."
But two weeks after she failed to identify him in a lineup at the motel, the victim chose his photograph from a six-pack police lineup. Police sent Flores to the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange to await trial. When it finally started more than a year and a half later, it quickly became obvious—to a jury at least—that Flores never should have been arrested for the carjacking.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence came from the eyewitness who told the jury that police arrived well after the carjackers—both of whom ran away and neither of whom resembled Richard Flores. But equally mysterious was how the victim's memory had improved so much over time.
Mitch Eisen, a Cal State LA psychologist, told the jury that Snavely's memory of the carjacking might have been "contaminated" by suggestive police work. "With the victim's identification of Flores, what may have happened is known as 'unconscious transference,'" Eisen said. "We confuse familiar faces associated with the event with the face of the actual suspect." Seeing Flores in the lineup at the motel, in other words, may have ensured that she would later choose his face in the photo lineup. "She didn't identify him as the suspect but as a familiar face," he argued.
The trial's biggest bombshell, however, came from James Wolden, a since-recovered heroin addict who was staying at the motel the night Flores was arrested. Wolden testified he saw the suspects flee the car crash from his second-story balcony. About three minutes later, Wolden says, "a police officer with a dog on a leash came over below my balcony, where one of the suspects had run away. The dog got right beneath me and looked confused which way to go. The cop looked really lost."
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Wolden says he told the jury that neither of the suspects remotely resembled Richard Flores. "I just knew it wasn't him, but I didn't say anything because I was at that hotel to do drugs, not talk to the police or tell them they had arrested the wrong guy. But I wanted to testify when I got subpoenaed because if a guy like Flores should go to jail, he should be there for something he did."
The jury agreed with Wolden and on Feb. 11 acquitted Flores of the carjacking.
Flores says jail saved his life. Four months before he was arrested, Flores says, a rival gang member ambushed him, firing several shots at him from close range. "I tried to turn, but I was two feet in front of him," he said. "I got hit twice in the legs. When I got shot, it was relatively painless, though. I wasn't nearly as scared as I was during my trial. I could have spent the rest of my life in prison for something I didn't do."
During his two-year stay, he kicked his drug habit, and he says he'll remain clean. "Before I went into jail, I never had any real responsibility in my life," he said. "But now I've had the opportunity to turn my life around. I know I'll never take my freedom for granted again. My life back then was going in a really bad direction; it wasn't going to end well one way or another."