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Orange County; Is D.A.'s Handling of Lopez a Carmona Copy?


George Lopez doesn't know Arthur Carmona, but the two could find a lot to talk about.

Lopez, now 19, was sentenced in February 2000 to 13 years in prison for the May 1999 robbery of an Anaheim commercial-loan business. Prosecutors allege that Lopez brandished a sawed-off shotgun while he and another man robbed the office.

From the outset, Lopez protested his innocence. Then, after his trial, the key eyewitness against him said he wasn't sure of his testimony. Two other witnesses to the crime have said Lopez, now serving his sentence in Ironwood State Prison near Blythe, definitely wasn't the robber.
Cut quickly to 10 months ago, when the Orange County district attorney's office asked a judge to dismiss robbery charges against Carmona, a Costa Mesa teenager. This came after Carmona, then 18, had spent 2 1/2 years behind bars.

Though welcomed, it wasn't nearly as beneficent an act as it seemed. At the time, the D.A.'s office was facing a retrial of Carmona in a case it probably never could have won. In other words, the D.A. was pretty much backed into a corner when it asked the judge to set Carmona free.
Having championed Carmona's bid for a new trial in a series of columns, I celebrated his release. But it stuck in my craw that Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas waited until August of last year to make his move, nearly six months after an appellate court first kicked the flawed case back to the lower court. The effect was that Carmona, a teenager with no previous criminal record, spent that additional time in state prison for no good reason.

The D.A. simply chose to let him sit some more.
This week, the same Orange County appeals court that reviewed Carmona's case kicked the Lopez case back to its original court. While not a judgment on his guilt or innocence, the action is rare and signals that Lopez's appeal has legitimacy.

I don't know all the details of the Lopez case. What I do know, however, dredges up some unpleasant memories of how Carmona was convicted, then left to languish as the appeal process inched along.

For starters, Lopez was identified by only one of three employees in the office who witnessed the robbery. That witness, Hector Patino, later wrote a letter to the trial judge saying he "could not in good faith be 100% sure that [Lopez] is the same person" who robbed the office.

The other two employees were called by the prosecution, but not asked in court to identify Lopez, who was sitting not far away at the defense table. Subsequently, those two employees said Lopez wasn't the robber and would testify to that, if asked.

To prosecutor Joe D'Agostino's credit, he informed Charles Stoddard, Lopez's original attorney, during the trial that the two employees had told him Lopez wasn't the robber.


Stoddard has said publicly he regrets not asking the two employees, while they were on the witness stand, if they could identify Lopez.

His failure to do so forms part of Lopez's appeal filed by his new attorney, James M. Crawford. My intent here isn't to try to define the case for or against Lopez, though Crawford has a thick stack of papers with other information he says demands a new trial. Meanwhile, prosecutors are saying for the record that it isn't only Patino's identification that leads them to think Lopez is guilty.


Sure, it's possible a conspiracy is afoot to get the three office employees to absolve Lopez. Their stories should be checked and rechecked. But let's say in the next breath it's just as possible-- and much more likely--that they're telling the truth and Lopez isn't the guy.
We can't decide that here, but we can demand this of the district attorney:
Don't take several months to get to the bottom of it. Appeals, with their briefs and counter-briefs, eat up time in 30- and 60-day chunks. All the while, a young man who may have been unfairly convicted sits in state prison.
My hunch is that the D.A.'s office knows right now whether the verdict against Lopez is correct.

Rackauckas and his lieutenants would say there's a "process" that must be respected. I agree with that, except in cases where the D.A. has a strong sense the wrong guy is in prison.

A shaky identification. Two exculpating identifications. No physical evidence. All I hear are scary reminders of the Carmona debacle.
Where's the case?

Deputy D.A. Brian Gurwitz has sounded the right notes, so far.
He says he hasn't studied the Lopez petition but adds, "I can tell you this: The only way we would ever oppose it is if we have complete confidence in the integrity of the verdict."
If he means it, Lopez should be out soon and the D.A.'s office can claim some partial redemption for the Carmona case.
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Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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