Panelists Rail Against Prosecutorial Misconduct, Wrongful Convictions During UCI Forum

Kevin Green wore a blue t-shirt last night with a license plate design reading “XONR8” when recounting being imprisoned 16 years for a Tustin murder he didn’t commit. Ronnie Carmona joined Green for the forum at UC Irvine Law school on wrongful convictions. She retold the ordeal her late son, Arthur Carmona, endured when arrested and convicted for an Irvine robbery he didn’t commit. The testimonies anchored a two-hour long “Exonerees v. District Attorney” panel discussion organized by the People Enraged Over Prosecutors and Law Enforcement (PEOPLE) that also featured two legal professional panelists weighing in on OC’s criminal justice system.

On the night of Sept. 30, 1979, Green left his Tustin home for a fast food run. When he returned, Diane, his pregnant wife at the time, lay bludgeoned in a pool of blood. Tustin police arrested Green for the attempted murder of his wife and for murder of their unborn child. “It was sensational news,” Green recalled.  “‘Marine Involved in Beating Death’ [reads] better than ‘We Can’t Find the ‘Bedroom Basher.'” Prosecutors in the case gained a conviction based on Diane’s testimony against Green, even though she suffered brain damage from the attack and no corroborating evidence existed.

After spending 16 years in prison, Green finally walked out a free man. DNA from sperm found on the victim matched a profile for Gerald Parker, a serial killer known as the “Bedroom Basher.” Parker confessed to the crime and several other murders. Green received $620,000 for time spent in jail while innocent of any wrongdoing. The exonerated man recalls the prosecuting attorney showing no remorse when asked by a journalist about the case years later. “If it wasn’t for DNA, I could convict him again today,” he reportedly said. A quiet gasp sounded from the forum. “When they have the attitude that it’s about their achievement, we all suffer,” Green said. The microphone turned to Ronnie Carmona next. She retold how Irvine police arrested her son for a string of armed robberies he didn’t commit and how zealous prosecutors gained a conviction anyway. The trouble began on the afternoon of Feb. 12, 1998 when Arthur walked home from school. Police searched for a suspect who robbed the Irvine Juice Club and zeroed in on the 16-year-old kid. They forced a black Lakers cap on him after deciding he vaguely fit the description of the robbery suspect. “The [police] arrest my son and he’s charged with 12 armed robberies,” Ronnie said. During the trial, the defense established that he was at school for most of them, but the getaway driver for the Irvine Juice Club heist implicated Arthur in exchange for a plea deal drastically reducing his sentence.

Two years after the robbery, Arthur walked free. Former Weekly freelancer Bob Emmers and Los Angeles Times columnist Dana Parsons pointed out the wild inconsistencies in the prosecution’s narrative. The witnesses identifying Arthur as the robber recanted and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas could no longer justify holding him behind bars. “It’s a rare event that a convicted defendant gets this kind of break,” Rackauckas told Arthur. “You are getting a second chance. Don’t let yourself or your supporters down.” The words still sting in Ronnie’s memory. “The DA basically destroyed my son’s life,” she said. “My son never got no apology.” Sadly, Arthur can’t tell his own story anymore. A drunk driver killed him in 2008.  Laurie Levenson of the Loyola Law Project for the Innocent and UCI Criminal Justice Clinic professor Katie Tinto built on the stories of exoneration to point out larger systemic problems during the panel. “We’ve had four exonerations just this year,” Levenson noted to applause. She highlighted prosecutors failing to hand over exculpatory evidence as a big problem in OC. “They don’t mind the short cuts,” Levenson added. In fact, the State Bar Court of California recently recommended a one-year suspension for OC prosecutor Sandra Lee Nassar after she hid such evidence in the State of California v. Iacullo case.

While wrongful convictions like Carmona and Green are more likely to grab the attention of reporters, Tinto pointed out another area of concern with the criminal justice system. She criticized the overuse of plea bargains to gain convictions in misdemeanor cases. “It’s a factory of misdemeanor pleas and DAs control that factor,” Tinto said of OC courts. She noted that sometimes police reports aren’t even printed out for review when the bargains are secured. “These pleas are happening in about 30 seconds,” she added. The misdemeanor system isn’t without consequence for those take bargains that look appealing at first sight. Tinto noted that copping to crimes in such a manner can lead people to be deported, lose public housing, or be fired from their jobs.

“We have to also make the DA accountable for the misdemeanor system,” Tinto says. “We need a DA that’s elected to have a management style that cares about the misdemeanors.” Levenson echoed the criticism noting that change in the DA’s office has to start with a culture of justice, not winning for the sake of a career path leading to becoming a judge. “The right result is due process and having a fair trial,” she said.

That’s all Ronnie Carmona and Kevin Green wanted after all. “I think we can do better in demanding more out of our prosecutors,” Green said. “I did not deserve for anyone to take my son away from me,” Ronnie added. She suffered from homelessness during the whole ordeal with Arthur’s case. “It’s up to us now to educate ourselves who the hell we are voting for. We need new leadership, change and transparency here in Orange County.”

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