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Ventura County

Defense Rests in Attempt to Free Murder Convict

Court: Attorneys for Efren Cruz, in prison for 1997 shooting, try to show that his cousin's confession was not part of a conspiracy.

July 04, 2001|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Defense attorneys fighting to overturn an Oxnard man's 1997 murder conviction rested their case Tuesday after presenting their final evidence to show that another man was the killer.

Efren Cruz, 26, was found guilty of murder and related charges four years ago in connection with a gang-related shooting at a downtown Santa Barbara parking garage.

But last year, Ventura County authorities obtained a secretly taped confession from Cruz's cousin, Gerardo Reyes, in which Reyes admits pulling the trigger and letting his cousin take the blame. Reyes, 28, has since denied any role in the shooting at city parking lot No. 10.

Based on Reyes' tape-recorded statements, Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury sent a letter to Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Thomas Sneddon in which he concluded that Reyes was the shooter, not Cruz.

Santa Barbara authorities, however, say they believe that jurors convicted the right man.

On Tuesday, defense lawyers, who have filed court papers to overturn Cruz's conviction, wrapped up their case by calling police officers who were involved in the murder investigation and a more recent inquiry into Reyes' alleged confession.

Santa Barbara Police Sgt. Donald Knapp and Det. Jesse Rose interviewed Reyes three months ago while he was being held on an unrelated assault charge at Ventura County Jail.

"We were trying to ask him what happened at city lot 10," Knapp testified. "His answers were consistently, 'I don't know.' "

Knapp said police and prosecutors wanted to determine whether Reyes had given a false confession as part of a family conspiracy to free Cruz from prison.

Ultimately, he said, the conspiracy theory could not be substantiated.

Knapp's testimony in Santa Barbara County Superior Court began two weeks ago but was interrupted by a long recess in the proceedings. He previously testified that despite evidence obtained by Ventura County authorities, Santa Barbara police never doubted that Cruz was the shooter.

As a result, Knapp said, they treated Reyes as a witness--not a suspect--during the March 27 jail interview and told him that Santa Barbara authorities were not going to file criminal charges against him.

"Mr. Reyes, even with the confession, was not a viable suspect," Knapp testified, according to a transcript.

Knapp acknowledged under questioning by defense attorney Phil Dunn that he asked Reyes leading questions and lied to him to obtain statements about the case. He said he was trying to get to the truth.

"When you interview people like this, you get truths, you get half-truths, you get lies. It's a matter of trying to figure out which is which," Knapp testified.

"Did it ever occur to you," Dunn asked at one point, "that maybe, just maybe, Mr. Reyes was involved in the shooting somehow?"

Answered Knapp: "I would have to say no."

In other testimony Tuesday, Dunn called two Oxnard sisters to the stand to question them about statements Reyes allegedly made to their brother, who has been identified in court as a member of Reyes' Oxnard gang.

The sisters, Margarita and Veronica Reyes, who are not related to Gerardo Reyes, denied hearing any conversations about the shooting. But police told a different story.

Two officers testified that the sisters on different occasions told them they overhead separate conversations between their brother, Ramiro, and Gerardo Reyes that involved talk about a gun and an incident in Santa Barbara.

Testimony before Judge Frank Ochoa is scheduled to resume Thursday when the prosecution will call its first witnesses.

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