As a journalist who played an admittedly minor role in getting Arthur Carmona out of prison—it was Los Angeles Times columnist Dana Parsons and former Weekly freelancer Bob Emmers who first exposed his wrongful conviction for armed robbery a decade ago—I never imagined I'd be wishing Carmona, an innocent man, were still behind bars.
But the ironic truth is that if Carmona had still been serving his 12-year prison sentence, he wouldn't be stretched out on a table at the county morgue. And his mother, who fought tirelessly on his behalf while he was in prison, would still be dreaming of getting her son back someday, rather than knowing that he will never come home.
Early Sunday morning, Santa Ana police responded to what turned out to be erroneous reports of gunfire at a party at a mobile home. As they drove up, they saw Carmona lying in the street. An ambulance took him, unconscious, to Garden Grove Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Witnesses said a man who started a fight at the party ran over Carmona after the 26-year-old and his relatives left. Police impounded a nearby pickup truck and opened a homicide investigation. As of press time, they had not made any arrests and would not name a suspect.
Carmona's tragic, senseless killing is the final chapter in a story that began almost exactly 10 years ago, on Feb. 12, 1998, when somebody used a handgun to rob an Irvine Juice Club. Carmona, who had just celebrated his 16th birthday, was walking home from school when a pair of Costa Mesa police officers spotted him. He vaguely fit the description of the suspect. But eyewitnesses balked at identifying him until the cops placed him in a lineup, wearing a Lakers hat that was linked to the crime but not Carmona. In fact, there was never any physical evidence linking Carmona to the robbery. Police repeatedly lied in their interrogation of Carmona by telling him they had evidence—including videotape—that he did the crime.
After a jury convicted Carmona, the Times' Parsons wrote a series of columns exploring the myriad inconsistencies in the case. He eventually reported that both eyewitnesses and jurors who helped convict Carmona had come to the conclusion they were misled by police. Local civil-rights attorney Nadia Davis—now Nadia Davis-Lockyer, wife of former state attorney general Bill Lockyer—got interested and helped to find a decent law firm to handle Carmona's appeal, which otherwise would have been a mere technicality.
Other journalists, such as the Weekly's Emmers (see “The Kid Is Innocent,” Sept. 16, 1999) and I (“The Kid Is Gone,” Nov. 25, 1999), jumped on the story, demanding that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas drop the bogus charges, apologize to Carmona and set him free. Eventually, it worked.
On Aug. 21, 2000, the first and only time I saw Carmona in person, he appeared in a packed courtroom, dressed in an orange jump suit, the standard uniform of guests of Theo Lacy Men's Jail, where Carmona had been staying ever since prosecutors announced they could no longer justify keeping him behind bars. At the end of that hearing, the judge ordered Carmona to be released from jail immediately, but not before DA Rackauckas told a stunned audience that Carmona didn't deserve any apologies.
“With the recanting of identification witnesses, it is very unlikely that a second jury would convict Mr. Carmona,” Rackauckas bellowed. “Now, this does not mean that we believe Mr. Carmona is innocent. . . . Arthur, it's a rare event that a convicted defendant gets this kind of break. You are getting a second chance. Don't let yourself or your supporters down.”
According to his mother, Ronnie Carmona, Arthur struggled with anger and depression as a result of his two-year stint in state prison. Carmona would never talk about life behind bars. I tried to interview him a few times about his experience, but he rebuffed my efforts.
Carmona finally talked to me in March 2006, shortly after being arrested for keying a car outside a Fullerton nightclub. This time, Carmona didn't deny the charges. He claimed he'd had an argument with two men over a parking space and later returned to find his car scratched. He did the same to the other car and was caught red-handed by a cop. I asked Carmona if he was still angry about going to prison for a crime he didn't commit. “Hell, yeah, I'm angry,” he said. “I'm hella pissed-off. That's never going to go away.”
In the months leading up to his death, Carmona had been dividing his time between advocating on behalf of wrongfully convicted inmates in the California prison system and taking firefighting classes at Santa Ana College. It seemed he'd finally gotten over the anger that had plagued him in the eight years since his release. The e-mail I received from his mom Sunday night sums up the tragedy of his untimely death better than I ever could.
“My son passed away this morning,” Ronnie wrote. “Arthur is finally free.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).