Orange County's Alain Cruz is immensely frustrated that nobody in California's judicial system is listening to cries that he's been railroaded.
Cruz was involved in the January 2005 shooting death of a con artist who operated a stolen phone service operation.
But Cruz didn't shoot Melvin Liufau (AKA “Coco”) and he says the shooter, Autumn Cruz (no relation) fired the fatal shot to Coco's back accidentally during an argument.
Police, prosecutors, jurors and several state judges refused to accept his version of events and the consequences have been dramatic for a man with no prior convictions: 51.5 years in prison.
The main reason nobody believes Cruz and the punishment so severe is simple. At the time of the crime, he was a member of criminal gang Alley Boys, according to police.
On the streets, assumed gangsters win respect through fear, but in the criminal justice system they are commonly treated with utter contempt. Nothing they say is believed unless it suits government strategy and they are singled out for brutal punishments.
In this case, a police officer testified that Cruz was a member of Alley Boys and opined that the killing was done to enhance the street reputation of the gang.
But Cruz claims cops twisted the truth. He went to Coco's home with a gun-toting Autumn to frighten the con artist into giving Autumn a computer disk that contained personal information like her social security number. He didn't think the gun was loaded and Autumn's motive wasn't to rob or to kill, but only to block Coco from making her a victim in his phone scam, according to the defense version of events.
In 2008, the California Court of Appeal based in Santa Ana reviewed the conviction and sided with the government: this was a special circumstances killing in the commission of a robbery on behalf of a criminal organization.
Late last month, a federal judge considered Cruz's argument.
“There is no evidence that demonstrates that [I am] a gang member nor the crime was gang related,” Cruz wrote in neat handwriting in his latest appeal from prison. “The People's whole case rests on a gang expert with a hypothetical opinion of [me] . . . [My] sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.”
But U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Chooljian determined that police labeling of Cruz as a gangster was accurate for several alleged facts from police files including: he knew the gang's hand sign, his brother was a member and he backed up the gang in prior physical disputes with other hoodlums.
To help determine if Cruz was a gang member like police alleged, Chooljian employed circular logic by stating that the defendant's “participation in the offenses charged in [this case]” makes him a gang member.
In other words, Chooljian–a former federal prosecutor–tested the accuracy of the police assertion that Cruz was a gang member, in part, by using the police assertion that that crime was gang related because Cruz was present.
Therefore, according to the judge, it was clear to her that “this evidence amply demonstrated that petitioner was an active participant in the Alley Boys at the time of the offense.”
Chooljian also declared that the punishment wasn't too tough.
On Nov. 30 inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford accepted Chooljian's findings and closed the case.
Upshot: Cruz, 30, will remain locked up in Corcoran State Prison. He won't be eligible for parole until he's in mid 70s.
For her role as the shooter, Autumn Cruz received a punishment of life in prison without the possibility for parole. The 27-year-old resides at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.