A state appeals court panel recently reversed a second-degree murder conviction for a 22-year-old man charged in the gang-related shooting of a Garden Grove 20-year-old nearly six years ago.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal panel found that Jeremy Erin Valdez should not have been convicted because his attorney failed “to investigate the case and uncover a key exculpatory witness”—an epic fail that the justices say “destroys our confidence in a jury verdict concluding he aides and abetted the shooter in killing the victim.”
But in the ruling issued Wednesday, the justices also upheld the second-degree murder convictions of Alexander Soto, 24, and David Anthony Luna, 21. Co-defendant Jorge Huante, considered by prosecutors to be the actual shooter, remains a fugitive.
Around 10 p.m. on June 4, 2010, Harvey Romero and his friends had left a combination graduation/birthday party and were slowly driving on Santa Catalina Street in Stanton looking for a friend when a half dozen or so people walked up and confronted them. During the conflict, two shots rang out, hitting Romero, who was a passenger in the car and had put his head out the window.
At issue in the case before the justices was if a witness truthfully testified that Valdez stood in front of the SUV to try to stop it while other gang members were doing a “hit up.” A former girlfriend testified Valdez was talking to a group of women when the shots rang out.
Now-retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno agreed that Valdez’s defense attorney Gary Schreiber “was deficient in failing to interview a single witness despite the murder charges against Valdez,” but Briseno denied a motion for a new trial, the justices wrote.
Valdez’s subsequent attorney, Mark Fredrick, hired an investigator, who interviewed the man behind the wheel of the SUV when Romero was killed. That witness denied anyone stepped in front of the SUV before the shooting.
“This contradicted the lone eyewitness who suggested Valdez participated in any manner in the offense,” the justices concluded.
The panel also ruled that the witness who put Valdez in front of the SUV could not have seen him there, because the shots rang out as the driver turned the corner, making it “impossible for the witness to see in front of the SUV where he claimed Valdez stood.”
The Orange County District Attorney’s office has not indicated how it will handle the case against Valdez going forward.