Photo by Jack GouldLast week, the Orange County district attorney's office finally got what it needed to feel better about sending an innocent man to prison. On July 6, Joshua "Big J-Mo" Moore pleaded guilty to driving the getaway car in a 1998 ATM holdup in Orange. In return, county prosecutors acknowledged they had no evidence to keep Moore in prison for the armed robbery that same year of a Fullerton video store.
The deal was a bitter one for Moore, who continues to insist on his innocence in the ATM robbery. But it allowed the 21-year-old Lakewood resident to walk out of jail a free man after two years behind bars at Wasco State Prison.
Moore's reversal of fortune came at a 10 a.m. hearing before Judge Daniel J. Didier, the courtroom in which a jury convicted him largely on evidence that his affection for rap music indicated a penchant for criminality. Thirteen hours after he pleaded guilty in the ATM case, Moore walked out of the Theo Lacy Justice Center in Orange with a sentence of time served, no probation attached to his conviction, no parole—and no apologies from the Orange County district attorney's office.
Not even Didier, the man who sentenced Moore to 12 years in prison, had anything conciliatory to say. He told Moore to thank the people who "stood up for him" and then admonished him that "the system worked, and the people did their job; justice was served."
"I don't think justice is ever served when someone is convicted for a crime he didn't commit," David L. Tucker, Moore's defense attorney, said shortly after the hearing ended.
Didier's declaration that justice was served didn't impress Ronnie Carmona or her son, Arthur, both of whom attended Moore's hearing last Friday. Costa Mesa resident Arthur Carmona spent more than two years at Ironwood State Prison for two 1998 robbery convictions that were later thrown out. Also present at Moore's hearing was Patricia Lopez of Garden Grove. Her son George remains behind bars, despite the fact prosecutors now admit he's innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, a 1999 armed robbery.
"I feel bad for the [Moore] family because we've been through all this before," Ronnie Carmona said in the hallway outside the courtroom. "The hardest part is going to be watching [Josh] integrate back into society. He's going to come back different."
Interviewed the next day, the man known to his friends in the music community as Big J-Mo seemed cheerful and upbeat. He said the worst part of his experience was the time he spent at the Orange County jail during his lengthy trial two years ago—a facility Moore described as brutal and filthy.
"I'd rather spend two years in state prison than one year in the county jail," he said. "But once you're in prison, you've got to keep a positive attitude. One thing I learned quick in prison is not to complain—just deal with it."
Moore said he took the deal offered by prosecutors because he "felt it would be easier on everyone involved. . . . I just wanted to cut my losses and go home."
Moore's family, which stood behind him throughout his ordeal, plans to file a $61,100 illegal incarceration claim against the state of California—$100 for each of the 611 days he spent behind bars—and sue both the county of Orange and the Fullerton Police Department.
Other than contradictory eyewitness testimony, the only evidence against Moore consisted of rap lyrics found in his high school notebook. As the OC Weekly has already reported, neither prosecutors, police nor Moore's original defense attorney ever interviewed co-workers until long after his conviction; two could have testified that Moore was at work at the time the robbery was committed ("Bad Rap," March 2).
Following several Weekly articles critical of Moore's prosecution, deputy DA Brian Gurwitz ordered a new investigation. That led to the discovery of one of Moore's fingerprints on a work receipt from the day and time of the crime. The fingerprint proved what Moore had been claiming all along: he was at work in a Huntington Beach golf store when someone else roughly matching his description robbed a video store in Fullerton.
Despite the fact that the actual gunman in the ATM robbery—an acquaintance of Moore's named Dron Botts—served only a few months in jail for his role in the crime, while the other passenger (standing next to Botts while Moore was parked 100 feet away) wasn't even charged, Moore was sentenced to 12 years because of the Fullerton robbery. He isn't bitter. "I always knew I wasn't going to come out of prison as some screwed-up convict, angry at the world," he explained. "I was going to make the best of a bad situation."
Moore offers this explanation for what happened to him. "In Orange County, a jury will believe anything the DA says, and the DA is willing to do anything to get a conviction," he concluded. "People don't realize this about the criminal-justice system until they're inside it. But in Orange County, if a cop arrests you, takes you down to the station and books you, you're guilty."
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