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Accused Arsonist's Alibi Called Ironclad : Crime: His attorneys are confident charges will be dropped against Jose Soto Martinez. He reportedly was in a Mexican prison during the Laguna Beach firestorm.

October 05, 1994|MARK PLATTE and MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — Confident that charges against accused Laguna Beach arsonist Jose Soto Martinez will not stand up in court, the Orange County public defender's office said Tuesday that it would not bother sending its own investigators to a Mexican prison where Martinez was held at the time of the firestorm.

Prosecutors declined to discuss the case, saying only that it is still under investigation. But court-appointed defense attorneys representing the man accused of setting the most destructive fire in the county's history said they are certain that the arson charge against their client cannot be proved because he has an ironclad alibi.

Since Mexican prison officials backed the claim of Martinez's family that he was in a Mazatlan prison when the fires occurred last October, officials from the district attorney's office have slowly backed off pronouncements that he set the fire that damaged or destroyed 441 homes and caused $528 million in losses.

Last Friday, Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi called a news conference to announce that Martinez "willfully and maliciously" set the blaze. But by Monday, Capizzi's chief assistant, Maurice Evans, said that in light of the new information, "perhaps Mr. Martinez did not set the fire and was in prison in Mexico."

With the possibility that prosecutors may have to drop the most serious of four arson charges against Martinez--the other three were for small fires in Fullerton--new questions have surfaced about the entire case against Martinez.

In a response to a query from The Times, Capizzi stated that the case had been fully investigated by his office for two weeks, that all prosecution guidelines were properly followed and that he was satisfied with the way all law enforcement agencies had handled it.

But others were critical of the filing. Deputy Public Defender Jim Egar said that even after Martinez was granted a court-appointed attorney, law enforcement officers videotaped seven sessions at which Martinez was quizzed about his knowledge of arson incidents without his attorney present--despite requests to the contrary.

Officers "recklessly and extensively" interrogated Martinez, Egar said, and violated his constitutional rights to have an attorney present and to not make incriminating statements against himself.

Prosecutors said that a public defender was appointed for Martinez only for the Fullerton fires, and that the subsequent interviews concerned only the Laguna fire, before a court-appointed attorney was chosen for that case.

But court documents show that his court-appointed attorneys formally put the district attorney's office on notice more than two weeks ago in the Fullerton case that Martinez was invoking his right to have his attorney present whenever questioned, and to remain silent "as to this case and any other matter whether or not a complaint has been filed therein. . . ."

Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler said Tuesday he thought that the district attorney's office may have rushed filing the arson charge against Martinez, without making an effort to contact the suspect's family for information that might exonerate him.

"I think they're being cautious now, whereas before they didn't exercise a great deal of caution," Butler said. "I guess they are trying to figure out how to deal with this in the media."

Butler also criticized the district attorney for interviewing Martinez about the Laguna fire even after a public defender had been appointed in the case.

"Let's assume that he was not in the prison in Mexico; it looks like there are some very serious questions of admissibility of any confession or investigation," Butler said. "It smells like they have serious legal problems. . . . If (Martinez's) statements are ruled invalid, then their case goes away on that as well."

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