The first time Deborah Muns heard the name Arthur Carmona was the day after his arrest for armed robbery on Feb. 12, 1998.
Her sister was a church leader at Seeker's Chapel in Fullerton, which had sponsored a weekend retreat a few days before Carmona's arrest. Carmona went on the retreat.
"Arthur didn't do it," Muns' sister told her.
Muns, then clerking for a Pasadena appellate judge, said she remembers thinking, "That's usually what they all say. And usually they all did it."
Still, Muns monitored the case from afar. Eight months later, in October 1998, Carmona was convicted of two robberies.
Coincidentally--and one might say providentially--that same month Muns, then 27, took a job as an associate at the international business law firm of Sidley & Austin in downtown Los Angeles.
A Stanford Law School graduate, Muns once considered being a prosecutor but cast her lot with a firm that handles civil litigation--companies fighting other companies.
Still, she couldn't shake what her sister had told her about young Carmona, who in June 1999 was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
By then, Muns was a newlywed and eight months into her new career. Although a pup at her new firm, she asked her bosses if the firm--which had a history of doing pro bono criminal defense work--would consider handling Carmona's appeal.
Last week, when the Orange County district attorney's office dropped its opposition to Carmona's appeal and agreed to his release after 2 1/2 years behind bars, many people saw Muns (who now goes by her married name of Muns-Park) as the central figure.
"I thought I was working for Arthur, but I actually found out I was working for Deb," joked Robert Fabrikant, the Sidley & Austin attorney who was set to handle the hearing that would have begun last week. The firm had a potential witness list of 30 and was prepared for a "major trial," said Fabrikant, a former assistant U.S. district attorney.
"Deb deserves the lion's share of the credit for what happened here," Fabrikant said. "She didn't come in and turn the case over to other people. She rolled up her sleeves and made the case. She found the witnesses, developed the evidence and prodded other people."
Fabrikant, 56, said that the firm logged 1,500 to 2,000 hours on the Carmona appeal and that Muns accounted for about 900 of them.
Research Reinforces Belief
Muns-Park, who turns 29 next week and is expecting her first child in December, said she is certain of Carmona's innocence. At first, she couldn't be.
"I don't want to say I had a strong sense of the case," she said. "I was only getting my sister's view, and I think I had read only one or two of your columns [advocating a new trial for Carmona]. My expectation was 'What are you not telling me? This can't be really how it happened.' "
As she researched the case, however, she concluded that the case against Carmona was weak and that his defense had fallen short.
After originally asking the firm to file only a standard appeal, she soon decided otherwise. "I think I went to Jim [Harris, one of the partners in the firm and her supervisor on the case] and said, 'We need a habeas petition.' "
That would require much more time, but the firm signed off on it.
In January of this year, six months after Muns took her first baby steps on the case, the firm filed a 325-page petition asking for Carmona's release. It was that petition the D.A. finally decided not to oppose.
Muns-Park said sheepishly that she's still too new at the firm to say much publicly.
But, she said, "from a young lawyer's perspective, this is what we all went to law school for. I can't ever remember feeling as fabulous as I did when Arthur called me from his car and said, 'I'm on my way home.' "
When the news came last week, the firm erupted with joy in its offices 40 floors above the streets of downtown Los Angeles. On Friday, when Carmona and his mother drove to the firm to say "Thank you" in person, they were greeted by a surprise party attended by dozens of lawyers and staffers, who showered them with rousing cheers.
A case that Muns-Park originally estimated would take 200 hours took nearly 10 times that. It came at a time when she had barely begun married life; luckily, she married another lawyer, and they turned outings to Orange County into working weekends.
"This was about someone's life, and is he going to have his name cleared and go home or spend the next 10 years in jail," Muns-Park said.
Fabrikant said that he's convinced of Carmona's innocence and that the outcome is a tribute to what large firms with vast resources can do in the pro bono arena.
"You can't have a higher, bigger thrill as a lawyer than accomplishing something like this," he said. "The smile on Arthur's face, the tears in his mom's eyes. . . . I have three daughters who are very public-interest-oriented kids. Of all the things I ever did in law practice, this thing is the one that makes the most sense to them."
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.