Photo by Keith MayOn Aug. 22, Arthur Carmona walked out of jail a free man after serving two and a half years for a crime he didn't commit.
The day before, Judge Everett Dickey told a packed courtroom that Carmona, 18, would be released from jail immediately under the terms of a last-minute agreement between his defense team and the Orange County district attorney's office.
But even as he ordered Carmona set free, Dickey stole his own thunder, admonishing Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran for his defense of Carmona in an Aug. 15 letter to the judge.
“As a lawyer, Mr. Agran should know better,” Dickey told his courtroom audience, adding that he planned to forward Agran's statements to the California State Bar Association for possible “action against Mr. Agran.”
But with the exception of reporters, few were listening to Dickey. The crowd surged toward Carmona. His mother, Ronnie, threw her purse to the courtroom floor and ran to embrace her son, still seemingly paralyzed in his seat.
Arthur Carmona had no grand words to mark his courtroom vindication. He sobbed silently.
In agreeing to “vacate” Carmona's conviction, the OC district attorney's office tried to put the best spin on what amounts to a fiasco—and did so in the least defensible manner: by blaming his legal victory on the work of pesky reporters.
One of those reporters is Dana Parsons, the Times OC columnist whose stories about Carmona's case were read by thousands, including several jurors and eyewitnesses in the original case. Prosecutors asserted that Carmona was the gunman in the robberies of an Irvine juice bar and a Costa Mesa restaurant. Parsons' biggest scoop: none of the eyewitnesses who tagged Carmona as the culprit did so until police placed on his head a Lakers cap linked to the Irvine robbery but never to Carmona.
“After the trial of this case, some members of the press went to work on it with the apparent motive of changing the verdict,” DA Tony Rackauckas declared. “Now, with the recanting of identification witnesses, it is very unlikely that a second jury would convict Mr. Carmona. This does not mean that we believe Mr. Carmona is innocent.”
Adding insult to Carmona's injury, the DA went on to imply that Carmona had gotten off easy. Speaking directly to Carmona, Rackauckas said, “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. When you get out, find a job, improve your skills, [and] have a good and productive life—do not commit any crimes!”
It was a bizarre but perfectly appropriate ending to a Kafkaesque trial that from its beginning was freighted with inconsistencies and evidence of official intimidation.
The chain of bad police work and prosecutorial indifference that shackled itself to Carmona began with his original interrogation by Irvine police detectives. A transcript shows they repeatedly but incorrectly told Carmona they had evidence—including videotape—that he had committed the robbery. Witnesses and jurors now say police and prosecutors compounded their early mistakes by misleading them about evidence linking Carmona to the crime. There wasn't any.
“This case wasn't won in the media,” remarked Mark Devore, a Santa Ana-based attorney who handled Carmona's original request for a new trial last year. “It was won on the facts. The facts are that Arthur Carmona was innocent two and a half years ago. He's innocent today, and he'll be innocent forever.”
Devore was one of more than a dozen people in the waiting room of Orange's Theo Lacy Jail a few hours after Dickey's dramatic ruling. Among them was Carmona's high-powered legal defense team from the LA-based law firm Sidley N Austin.
“This was a complete surprise,” said Deborah Muns, the soft-spoken Sidley N Austin attorney who handled the case pro bono. She had prepared herself for a four-day evidentiary hearing to determine whether Carmona would get a new trial. “We didn't know anything about this until this morning,” she said.
Equally shocked about the DA's surprise announcement was Ronnie Carmona. She rushed to her Santa Ana storage unit to find a pair of hiking boots and jeans Arthur could wear on his first day out of prison.
“I'm just totally overwhelmed,” she said. Overwhelmed and angry: in order to obtain his release, her son was required to sign a waiver stipulating that neither police nor prosecutors had committed any wrongdoing.
“I am appalled at the way the DA handled this case,” Ronnie Carmona said. “This [deal] shows the system isn't concerned with justice or truth. . . . But at this point, I just want my son back. I just want this to end.”
But Arthur Carmona was a no-show at the Theo Lacy gathering in his honor. Despite Dickey's order that he be released, officials at Ironwood State Prison—a remote desert facility near the Arizona border where Carmona was held for the past few months—weren't answering the telephone. Without their permission, Theo Lacy officials refused to let Carmona go, insisting that their only option was to place Carmona on a 3 a.m. bus back to Ironwood, where he would have to be fetched by his family once his paperwork was processed. Thanks to last-minute intervention by state Senator Joe Dunn, that never happened. Some 18 hours after the drama in Dickey's courtroom ended, Carmona finally got his get-out-of-jail-free card and walked out the doors of the Theo Lacy—and into the arms of his waiting mother—a free man.
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).