A judge Friday ordered a Garden Grove man released from prison until a court decides whether to overturn a robbery conviction that has kept the defendant behind bars for nearly two years.
Citing "substantial legal issues" raised by defense attorneys, Orange County Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Didier ordered George Lopez released without bail until a hearing next month. The judge also said he no longer considers the 19-year-old a danger to society.
Lopez, who was released Friday night, was convicted last year of robbing an Anaheim loan office even though the victims expressed doubt that he was the gunman. In July, a man serving time for three other Orange County robberies said in a prison interview that he, not Lopez, committed the May 1999 robbery of Commercial Credit.
Although Didier has yet to rule on Lopez's request for a new trial, the decision to release him was hailed by supporters.
"It's a relief. It's the first good thing that has happened," said Lopez's wife, Leah, who gave birth to their son shortly after the conviction. "My family can finally be complete."
Prosecutors have opposed Lopez's appeal from the outset. Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Gurwitz argued Friday that Lopez should remain in custody until the judge rules on his appeal, noting that the conviction and sentence are still in place.
Didier ordered Lopez back in court Oct. 22 for what is expected to be a three-day hearing on his appeal. A key issue will be whether Lopez's trial lawyer erred by failing to call as witnesses the two victims who doubted Lopez's guilt.
According to prosecutors, Lopez used a sawed-off shotgun to rob three employees inside the Lincoln Avenue business. He was linked to the crime three months later when one of the victims identified his photograph as that of the gunman. There were no fingerprints or other physical evidence tying him to the robbery.
2 Victims Were Not Called to Testify
During the trial, the two victims told Lopez's lawyer, Charles Stoddard, of their doubts. But Stoddard chose not to call them as witnesses. Neither did he tell the jury that another man, Johnny SantaCruz, pleaded guilty to using an identical shotgun to rob three Orange County businesses the same week the loan office was robbed.
SantaCruz told The Times in July that he robbed Commercial Credit. He has refused to cooperate with prosecutors or Lopez lawyer James Crawford. But Crawford is seeking a court order to have him testify at the Oct. 22 hearing.
SantaCruz said the loan office was one of at least 11 Orange County businesses he robbed in 1999, spending most of the proceeds on drugs.
Prosecutors have said SantaCruz and Lopez had a relationship before their arrests and became friends while in prison.
In fact, Lopez and SantaCruz were riding in a car with a shotgun in 1999, according to an Orange police report. SantaCruz said the gun was his and that Lopez had no idea it was in the car. Although SantaCruz is an admitted gang member, Lopez has no known gang affiliations, according to police.
Crawford says SantaCruz has the same build as the man witnesses described the day of the robbery. But he outweighs Lopez by about 40 pounds. "They have no evidence," Crawford said.