A former nurse who spent three years in prison for a rape he didn't commit was awarded nearly $4 million Wednesday after a judge accused investigators of withholding crucial evidence that would have exonerated him.
Mark Bravo, 38, of Whittier was cheered and hugged Wednesday by fellow students at Fullerton's Western State University College of Law, where he is this year's Student of the Year.
"I'm cleared. My name is cleared," Bravo said. "I wasn't sure I would ever see a decision this favorable. Although I was hopeful, I had this impression that the justice system would not bow down to the rights of the people of the state of California. Boy, was I wrong."
In her ruling, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Florence Marie Cooper wrote that the case "demonstrates a chilling eagerness to eliminate or explain away all evidence."
Bravo's trouble began on Feb. 20, 1990, when he was working as a psychiatric nurse at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, a facility for the mentally disabled. A patient reported to a guard that she had been raped that afternoon. In the course of being interviewed by hospital authorities, she named several people as her attacker, including a man named "Tony Bravo."
Bravo maintained that he had left the hospital grounds at 11 a.m. and had not returned until the afternoon, which he had spent in meetings. Bravo said he had gone home that night without knowing that anyone had been raped.
Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies arrested him at the hospital the next morning.
"They put me in handcuffs and whisked me away," he later recalled.
In the trial, it came down to the word of hospital employees, who backed Bravo's alibi, against that of a mental patient who changed her story at least once.
But prosecutors argued that Bravo was one of only about 3% of the population whose blood type matched that found at the scene. And in the course of the trial, they pointed out inconsistencies in various statements he had made. In the end, he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison.
His appeals had failed, all the way to the state Supreme Court.
However, the woman who had accused Bravo of rape recanted and named another man as her attacker. And a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered DNA tests on items found at the rape scene.
The results of the testing showed that none of the stains found on the items matched the DNA profile of either Bravo or the woman who had been raped.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James A. Bascue ruled that Bravo had not received a fair trial, that the victim had recanted her accusation, that the scientific evidence presented at the trial was misleading and that Bravo had an alibi.
On Jan. 7, 1994, three years after entering prison, the former nurse was released.
Judge Cooper on Wednesday ordered the state to pay $3.9 million because its employees had conducted the investigation. She ruled that Howard Giblin and Sgt. Linda Miller, investigators with the state hospital's police department, had "deliberately and with malice" deprived Bravo of his civil rights.
Giblin had written incomplete reports deleting crucial facts when the case was turned over to the Sheriff's Department, Cooper wrote. When the victim went to Giblin's office and told him that she did not believe Mark Bravo to be the attacker, Giblin failed to tell prosecutors or Bravo's defense team, according to the judge.
Cooper said Miller was responsible because of "inaction where one has a duty to act."
"She often failed to take action when action was clearly required, and remained silent in the face of Giblin's outrageous conduct," Cooper wrote.
Earlier this year, Los Angeles County agreed to pay Bravo $875,000 in connection with the case.
"Everybody screwed up," said one of Bravo's attorneys, Sylvia Paoli. "There was a continual, ongoing rash of mistakes."
Deputy Atty. Gen. Laura Gold, who represented the state in the case, said the investigators followed protocol and did their jobs by the book.
"When a patient reports a rape, that is taken seriously even if the patient is mentally ill," Gold said. "This wasn't a simple case. It was a complicated case."
Citing a possible appeal, Gold declined to comment on the specific details of the civil rights violations.
Bravo, who will graduate this year from Western State, said he wants to work toward changing the law to avoid such a "rush to judgment" in similar cases.
"We have police or the sheriff's [departments] needing to control crime and they need to be overpowering. Then we have prosecutors trying to put notches on their belts. There's this constant chasing," he said. "That's what convicted me.
At Western State, Bravo became dean of the law school's fraternity and president of the Student Bar Assn. He recently was named the university's Student of the Year.
Among other things, he has been involved in organizing holiday parties at the county's Orangewood Children's Home.
Bravo's attorney, Hermez Moreno, said: "This case is a vindication to the citizens of this state."
Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this story.