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Orange County; Prosecutors Ask Judge to Clear Lopez; Crime:
D.A.'s office says evidence casts doubts on whether an Orange man
imprisoned for two years committed a 1999 holdup. A judge will rule
on the motion Friday.


Orange County prosecutors on Tuesday asked a judge to dismiss all charges against a man who spent two years in prison for a robbery officials now believe was probably committed by another man.

The decision came amid mounting evidence that George Lopez had nothing to do with the May 1999 robbery of an Anaheim loan office. Two of the robbery victims said Lopez wasn't the gunman, and another man said he, not Lopez, committed the crime.

The dismissal would mark the fifth time in two years that the Orange County district attorney's office has dropped charges against convicted felons after new evidence surfaced. In 2000, a man who served 20 years in prison for the murder of a fast-food manager was set free when witnesses cast doubts on his guilt. Eight months later, prosecutors released another man amid doubts he committed two robberies. And last year, prosecutors struck down two other robbery convictions after follow-up investigations found the suspects were innocent.

Lopez's case, like the previous four, was based in large part on witness identification testimony. He was arrested in August 1999 after one victim of a robbery at Commercial Credit Corp. said he looked like the man who robbed him.

The jury that convicted Lopez in February 2000 never heard that two other victims thought he was innocent, nor did they learn that another man pleaded guilty to committing three nearly identical robberies the same week. That man, Johnny SantaCruz, told The Times in July that he committed the Anaheim robbery.

The revelation prompted a judge in September to free Lopez, an Orange resident, while he decided whether to grant a new trial. After their own investigation, prosecutors filed a motion Tuesday asking Judge Daniel Didier to drop the case. Didier is scheduled to consider the motion Friday.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Gurwitz would not say what the district attorney's investigation found but said he took the action "because the newly discovered evidence has cast enough doubt on whether Lopez was the gunman."
" . . . The interests of justice are best served by vacating the convictions," Gurwitz said.

Lopez was running an errand when his wife called with the news Tuesday. "I'm so happy, words can't even explain it," Lopez said. "I have my life now. I'm so excited I feel like jumping up and screaming."

Lopez's appeals lawyer, James Crawford, said, "The system, it just broke down. Everybody from the defense to the prosecution, nobody did what they're supposed to do, before, during and after the trial.
"The district attorney should have dismissed the case once the witnesses said George wasn't the gunman."


It's unclear what role, if any, the dismissal of charges against Lopez will have on the upcoming race for district attorney, which pits incumbent Tony Rackauckas against prosecutor Wally Wade. So far, Wade has not made an issue of the Lopez case or of the other recent incidents in which convicted felons had their cases dropped.

On Tuesday, Lopez spent the day helping his father sell a used car. He's struggled to find a job since his release from prison, because potential employers are turned off by a felony conviction.

"I just want to go on with my life and forget about this thing and pretend this never happened," Lopez said.

It was Lopez's wife and parents who pushed his case, both in the media and by raising money to hire an appeals lawyer. Although the initial courtroom losses were frustrating, his mother, Tricia Lopez, said she was thrilled by the district attorney's decision.

"I've got chills," she said. "I have no words. It was worth the fight. I tried so hard and no one would give me the time of day. I'm just happy my son is free, maybe now he can get on with his life. It brings tears to my eyes."
Sources in the district attorney's office said prosecutors agreed to dismiss the case in part because SantaCruz recently admitted to investigators that he committed the crime.

SantaCruz and Lopez were arrested together four days after the robbery when police searched a car they were traveling in and discovered a gun. But SantaCruz later told The Times in an interview that this was the first time he had ever met Lopez and that Lopez didn't know the gun was in the car. SantaCruz insisted that Lopez had no involvement in the robberies.

"He didn't do it. . . . He's innocent," SantaCruz said in the July interview at Ironwood State Prison. "I saw an opportunity. I was going to take their money."
Authorities charged Lopez with armed robbery after one of the victims at the loan office identified him in a photo.

But during the trial, two of the victims told the prosecutor outside of court that they didn't believe Lopez was the gunman. The prosecutor passed along the statement to Lopez's defense lawyer, who chose not to ask them to testify about their doubts.

Legal experts said the outcome of the Lopez case underscores the fragile nature of eyewitness identification testimony, which several studies have shown to be a leading cause of wrongful convictions.

Brent Romney, a former Orange County deputy district attorney who now is a professor at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, said recent publicity about wrongful convictions is making the justice system more open to correcting its mistakes.

"It's not that more innocent people are being convicted, but rather we're looking more closely at those cases," Romney said. "This is due in large part to DNA evidence, which confirmed for prosecutors and defense attorneys that these claims of innocence are more than sour grapes from a convicted person."
While the Lopez family prepared to celebrate Tuesday afternoon, Tricia Lopez wondered whether her son and her family would ever recover.
"They make a terrible mistake and then go on their merry way," she said. "And I lose my son" for two years.

George Lopez said he understands he's fortunate to be free.
"Every day I spend with my wife and son I cherish, " he said. "I could get hit by a bus one day, or look at what happened to me, I got convicted of something I didn't do."

Credit: TIMES STAFF WRITER

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Location

James M. Crawford
528 N. Glassell

Orange, CA 92867

164 East 3rd Street
San Bernardino, CA 92410


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