A man who spent 1 1/2 years in jail for a Santa Ana street robbery was released Friday after attorneys presented new evidence that someone else committed the crime.
Judge Richard Toohey set aside the conviction of Richard Eddie Perez because of evidence that defense attorneys say links the robbery to a man who is awaiting trial in a string of highly publicized rapes and robberies last year.
A jury convicted Perez, 19, in January based largely on the testimony of one witness and what his defense attorneys described as a chain of unfortunate coincidences.
Prosecutors said they are going to reopen the investigation and determine whether to retry Perez or perhaps charge someone else.
Perez was scheduled to be released from Theo Lacy Jail in Orange on Friday night, and his family planned a dinner of chicken enchiladas, his favorite dish.
"It's been hard. It's been stressful. I feel relieved but not completely because it's not over," said Perez's father, Juan, a janitor at Santa Ana High School.
Fit the Description of Another Suspect
The case began in March 2000, when a woman spotted Perez walking on a Santa Ana street and told police he was the man who had robbed her at knifepoint in an apartment carport, taking some distinctive Mexican jewelry.
Shortly before the trial, Perez's mother, Martha, was reading her morning newspaper when she saw a story about Eduardo Guzman, the suspect in a series of Santa Ana rapes and robberies in the same area.
She noticed Guzman and her son's similar light complexions, their tightly trimmed mustaches. She also noticed that Guzman was accused of crimes highly similar to the one with which her son was charged.
But during the trial, the judge would not allow the defense to accuse another suspect without something more than a mother's instincts.
In January, after one day of deliberation, a jury convicted Perez of the robbery. He faced up to 10 years in prison.
After the verdict, Martha Perez hired a new lawyer, Edward Munoz, who learned from police reports that Guzman allegedly gave stolen jewelry to friends. A defense investigator visited Guzman's ex-girlfriend and told her about Perez's plight. She produced a silver Aztec calendar medallion identical to the one stolen from the victim in the Perez case. She said Guzman gave it to her sister, who then gave it to her.
Faced with the new evidence, Deputy Dist. Atty. Anne Tremblay on Friday agreed that Perez's robbery conviction should not stand.
"We got lucky," Munoz said. "He's going to be spared from going to prison for something he didn't do."
A String of Overturned Convictions
The case marked the fourth time in less than two years that Orange County prosecutors have agreed that convictions should be overturned because of allegations of mistaken eyewitness testimony.
It comes one month after a judge ordered the release of a fifth man, George Lopez, because of evidence that he also was wrongly convicted of an Orange County robbery.
The woman who implicated Perez selected his photograph from a series of booking mugs and later identified him in court. At Perez's house, police found a New York Yankees baseball cap and dark windbreaker similar to the clothing worn by the robber.
"She was a good witness, and I believed her to be telling the truth," Tremblay said.
Still, defense lawyers said it's time that prosecutors start paying close attention to the unreliability of witness testimony.
"When it's a pure eyewitness identification case, I think there's a yellow flag that has to go up," said law professor Brent Romney, a former Orange County prosecutor who recently launched an innocence project at Western State University College of Law.
"Now, with all these cases coming forth, prosecutors across the state and the country have to look more closely at these cases."
Perez's mother said she's not angry but wants "the community to know these things happen."
"Be very careful when you identify someone," Martha Perez said. "And if you're a juror, ask questions. Where's the fingerprints? Where's the other evidence? They didn't do that."