For the third time in a row, the Orange County district attorney's office is running out of ways to keep an innocent man in prison. First there was Arthur Carmona and Josh "Big J-Mo" Moore, both of whom were convicted of robberies they did not commit before finally being released from custody—long after any justification for keeping them behind bars had evaporated. This time, the victim of Orange County's notoriously conviction-happy DA's office is 19-year-old George Lopez. The Garden Grove resident is now serving a 13-year sentence at Ironwood State Prison near Blythe, the same facility where Carmona spent more than two years.
Lopez, a married father with no criminal record, was charged with the May 17, 1999, robbery of an Anaheim commercial-loan business. Lopez is light-skinned and slightly built, but witnesses described the bandit as a dark-skinned Latino weighing 190 pounds. Lopez also had a time card showing he was at work when the crime occurred. But police were convinced of Lopez's guilt despite another suspect simultaneously pleading guilty to three similar rip-offs—all of them involving a sawed-off shotgun, the weapon used in the May 17 robbery.
The culprit in those three robberies, a neighbor of Lopez's named Johnny Manuel Santacruz, is also serving time at Ironwood. Unlike Lopez, Santacruz is a self-acknowledged gang member with a previous criminal record. He has offered to tell prosecutors who really committed the May 17 robbery in return for immunity, an offer the DA's office has so far refused. In a recent sworn statement, Santacruz asserted that the DA's office "offered me three years in state prison if I would implicate George Lopez and 'everyone else' when I pled guilty. I refused to implicate others and received a 15-year sentence."
Lopez never testified at his own trial; his original defense lawyer, Charles Stoddard, failed to recall witnesses who seemed unsure that his client was the gunman. Lopez's ongoing appeal cites 15 counts of ineffective legal counsel and jury misconduct that resulted in his conviction. After the trial ended, two witnesses, Hector Patino and Marissa Leon—both of whom worked at the Anaheim commercial loan building—asserted that police had the wrong man.
Here's what Patino had to say in an April 5, 2000, declaration that is attached to Lopez's appeal: "After careful consideration of the crime
. . . I have come to the conclusion that I could not in good faith be 100 percent sure that the suspect presented to me at the trial . . . is the same person who was present at the crime scene."
Leon also has second thoughts. "I saw the suspect George Lopez in court and I can firmly attest to this young man not being the guilty party to the robbery in question," she declared on Aug. 30 of last year. "George Lopez is too thin and too small in build, also his complexion was too light. George Lopez simply did not match the person that I saw the day of the robbery."
While Stoddard failed to bring such facts to light during his trial, equally damaging was his decision not to have Lopez testify in his own defense. According to jurors who were interviewed by James Crawford, Lopez's appeal lawyer, his client's silence was a major factor in their guilty verdict. "I was the last holdout juror to vote guilty," one juror told Crawford.
"The judge stated the jury could not consider the fact that the defendant chose not to testify, however it was discussed amongst the jurors, and I believe weight was placed against the defendant because he did not testify," she said. "Myself and an older gentleman on the jury made the deliberations continue an extra day. There was conversation from other members of the jury that they did not want to lose another day of work without pay."
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That disturbing view of Lopez's conviction is made more disturbing by another declaration attached to the appeal, this one from his nephew, Sergio Escobedo, who attended the trial at the Orange County Superior Courthouse in Santa Ana. "After the jury returned its verdict, they were excused from the courtroom," he recalled. "The jurors went outside into the hall to discuss the case with the deputy district attorney. As they spoke about the case, I heard a male juror state that George Lopez looked guilty from the start. The juror made this remark to other jurors and the deputy district attorney. A bailiff then noticed me near the jurors and told me to either sit down on the bench or leave."
What Escobedo overheard outside the courtroom appears to be a perfect example of what Moore says he learned about Orange County's criminal justice system. "In Orange County, a jury will believe anything the DA says, and the DA is willing to do anything to get a conviction," Moore told the Weekly. "If a cop arrests you, takes you down to the station and books you, you're guilty."
DA spokeswoman Tori Richards refused to comment for this story, but prosecutors had until July 18 to respond to Lopez's appeal. So far, the DA's office still seems to believe Lopez is guilty.
"It's really frustrating," Patricia Lopez, George's mother, told the Weekly. "Both the victims are trying to get George released from prison, but the DA won't listen to them."