"Why would an innocent man confess to a murder that he did not commit?"
The question posed by defense attorney Mark W. Eisenberg during his opening statement is at the heart of a dramatic civil trial alleging Anaheim police beat a false confession out of a man. Eisenberg's client, Rafael Garcia Miranda, charges that detective Daron Wyatt also threatened to have Child Protective Services take his six children away if he didn't tell the officer what he wanted to hear during an interrogation.
Miranda falsely fessed up to being the supposed gang "shot caller," all for a meager $150, for the January 17, 1998 murder of Elizabeth Ann Begaren, an off-duty corrections officer killed in cold blood on the 91 freeway in Anaheim. The real culprit was Nuzzio Begaren, Elizabeth's newlywed husband, who contracted her killers (the gunman is still on the loose) so that he could cash in on her $1 million life insurance policy.
Whether the confession was voluntary or coerced is playing out before U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna. Miranda had been interrogated by Wyatt once in East Los Angeles on February 3, 2012 after the Begaren case had gone cold before a dubious tip from an informant came into play. Three days later, Wyatt had the man in another interrogation room, this time on his turf at APD headquarters.
Video and audio recorders captured the exchange. The audio file got transferred without a hitch. "The video of the interrogation was not," said Eisenberg. He let the jury know that the crucial evidence to the police brutality claims wasn't going to be available to them because it got erased.
The attorney added that Wyatt didn't write a report afterward either. A motive was offered up. "He knew the confession was a police induced confession," Eisenberg added, one that included kicks, threats and holding Miranda's head down on the table.
"There's two sides to every story," countered Anaheim assistant city attorney Moses W. Johnson IV. He focused on the middle-aged Miranda's 18th Street tattoos, a gang he actively rolled with from the ages of 12-35. Johnson defended Wyatt's professionalism, denying the detective threatened to have Miranda's children taken away nor did he physically assault him in any way during the Anaheim interrogation.
As for the erased videotape? Johnson said it was an honest mistake, one that Miranda is trying to financially capitalize on. "Wyatt did not believe Mr. Miranda's confession," he told jurors during his opening statement. It was Senior Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin, he argued, that wanted to press on with murder charges. "Mr. Miranda's confession was voluntary."
Detective Wyatt took the stand next. Eisenberg just barely started digging into him before court ended for the day. He did play audio from the first interrogation in East LA, a voluntary one, after Miranda had been arrested for driving on a suspended license.
"You don't know anything at all?" Wyatt asked Miranda of the '98 murder. He denied being a shot caller because he's a responsible father of six children. "I set it up? No, sir," he replied.
The trial is expected to last four to five days.
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2