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Ventura County

DNA Tests a Victory for Inmate

July 25, 2001|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Oxnard man fighting to overturn his 1997 murder conviction scored a minor victory in court Tuesday when DNA tests revealed that blood found on his hands after the killing was his own, and not that of one of the victims.

Efren Cruz, 27, was found guilty of murder and related charges four years ago after a jury concluded that he shot two men, one fatally, during a gang-related dispute in a downtown Santa Barbara parking garage.

The victims were shot in the head and neck, then beaten as they lay bleeding near the first-floor entrance of the garage. Cruz was arrested at the scene and identified by a witness as the gunman.

A chrome six-shot revolver was found in the parking garage. No fingerprints were recovered, but forensic tests revealed that Cruz had gunpowder residue and blood on his hands.

DNA tests could not be obtained for use in Cruz's 1997 trial due to a backlog in crime lab requests, Santa Barbara Deputy Dist. Atty. Hilary Dozer said.

But this summer, after Cruz challenged his conviction based on the secretly taped confession of another suspect, prosecutors decided to find out whose blood was on Cruz's fingers.

The results, which were revealed in court Tuesday, show that the blood belonged to Cruz.

Dozer downplayed the test's significance, saying the results do not determine the identity of the shooter.

"It's interesting, but not terribly important," Dozer said. "We are still of the belief Efren Cruz was properly convicted by our Santa Barbara jury."

But attorneys pushing for Cruz's release hailed the findings as further proof that their client was wrongly convicted.

They contend that evidence recently uncovered by the Ventura County district attorney's office, namely the alleged confession, proves that Cruz's cousin, Gerardo Reyes, was the gunman.

"It supports what we've said all along," Cruz lawyer Kevin DeNoce said. "The blood evidence in the case definitely points away from Cruz and further corroborates the confession of Gerardo Reyes."

The blood tests also revealed that Cruz was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the shooting. Cruz had a blood-alcohol level of 0.11%, which is above the legal limit for driving.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa has presided over the hearing for the past several weeks. Testimony is scheduled to resume Tuesday.

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