In a legal victory for a Garden Grove teen who insists he was wrongly convicted of robbery, an Orange County appeals court ruled Tuesday that his request for a new trial appears to have merit and should be heard by a trial judge.
The appeal focuses largely on two victims of an Anaheim loan office robbery who insist George Lopez was not the man who robbed them. Lopez, convicted last year, is serving a 13-year sentence at a state prison in Blythe.
The ruling means a Superior Court judge will hear testimony of the two victims as well as other details defense attorneys have raised in their appeal. The judge will then decide whether to sustain the conviction or grant a new trial.
"It's good news," said Lopez's attorney, James Crawford. "This is a key, first step toward getting George released from prison and returned home to his wife and family."
The appeal called into question several moves by Lopez's trial lawyer, Charles Stoddard, who elected not to ask the reluctant victims to testify about their doubts. Stoddard also failed to produce evidence that another man was convicted earlier of using an identical gun to rob three businesses in the days after the Anaheim robbery.
Since Lopez's conviction, the man convicted in the other three robberies offered to tell prosecutors who committed the Anaheim robbery--in exchange for immunity. Prosecutors have not accepted his offer.
Neither the trial prosecutor nor the deputy attorney general assigned the case could be reached for comment. But they have said in the past that they believe Lopez is guilty and the new evidence isn't enough to reopen the case.
Lopez's relatives said they were delighted to learn of the court's decision.
"I think they should face the fact they made a mistake and let an innocent young man come home," said Lopez's mother, Tricia. "All I ever wanted was for the truth to come out and it's finally happening."
At his trial, Lopez produced a time card he said showed he was working at a Santa Ana framing shop the day of the robbery. His uncle testified he drove Lopez home from work that day as usual.
The majority of similar appeals are denied without a hearing, so Tuesday's ruling is significant, said Richard Schwartzberg, an Orange County lawyer who specializes in criminal appeals.
"I think there's enough there that the likelihood is he's going to get a new trial," Schwartzberg said. "It just sounds like too many things went wrong."