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Charges Dropped, Ex-Convict Seeks to Rebuild Life

Courts: Prosecutors say the 1999 holdup in Anaheim was probably committed by another man, who has admitted his guilt.

January 09, 2002|STUART PFEIFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County prosecutors on Tuesday dismissed all charges against a man who spent two years in prison for a robbery that officials now believe was probably committed by another man.

The decision came amid mounting evidence that George Lopez had nothing to do with the May 1999 robbery of an Anaheim loan office. Two of the robbery victims said Lopez wasn't the gunman, and another man said that he--and not Lopez--committed the crime.

The dismissal marks the fifth time in two years that the Orange County district attorney's office has dropped charges against convicted felons after new evidence came up. In 2000, a man who served 20 years in prison in the killing of a fast-food restaurant manager was set free when witnesses cast doubt on his guilt. Eight months later, prosecutors released another man amid doubts that he committed two robberies. Last year, prosecutors struck down two other robbery convictions after subsequent investigations found they were not guilty.

Lopez's case, like the previous four, was based in large part on witness identification testimony. He was arrested in August 1999 after one victim of a robbery at Commercial Credit Corp. said he looked like the man who robbed him.

The jury that convicted Lopez in February 2000 never heard that two other victims thought he was not guilty, nor did they learn that another man pleaded guilty to committing three other nearly identical robberies the same week. That man, Johnny SantaCruz, told The Times in July that he committed the Anaheim robbery.

The new evidence prompted a judge in September to free Lopez while he decided whether to grant a new trial. After their own investigation, prosecutors filed a motion Tuesday asking Judge Daniel Didier to drop the case.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Gurwitz would not detail what the district attorney's investigation found but said he took the action "because the newly discovered evidence has cast enough doubt on whether Lopez was the gunman."

"The interests of justice are best served by vacating the convictions," Gurwitz added.

Lopez was running an errand when his wife called with the news Tuesday. "I'm so happy, words can't even explain it," Lopez said. "I have my life now. I'm so excited I feel like jumping up and screaming."

Lopez's appeals lawyer, James Crawford, added: "The system, it just broke down. Everybody from the defense to the prosecution, nobody did what they're supposed to do, before, during and after the trial."

"The district attorney should have dismissed the case once the witnesses said George wasn't the gunman," he added.

On Tuesday, Lopez spent the day helping his father sell a used car. Because of his felony conviction, he has struggled to find a job since his release from prison.

"I just want to go on with my life and forget about this thing and pretend this never happened," Lopez said.

It was Lopez's wife and mother who pushed his case, in the media and by raising money to hire an appeals lawyer. Although the initial courtroom losses were frustrating, his mother, Tricia Lopez, said she was thrilled by the district attorney's decision.

"I've got chills," she said. "I have no words. It was worth the fight. I tried so hard and no one would give me the time of day. I'm just happy my son is free, maybe now he can get on with his life. It brings tears to my eyes."

Sources in the district attorney's office said prosecutors agreed to dismiss the case in part because SantaCruz recently admitted to investigators that he committed the crime.

SantaCruz and Lopez were arrested together four days after the robbery when police searched the car in which they were riding and found a gun. But SantaCruz later told The Times that this was the first time he had seen Lopez and that Lopez didn't know the gun was in the car. SantaCruz insisted that Lopez had no involvement in the robberies.

'He didn't do it. . . . He's innocent," SantaCruz said in July. "I saw an opportunity. I was going to take their money."

Authorities charged Lopez with armed robbery when one of the victims at the loan office identified his photo.

But during the trial, two of the victims told the prosecutor outside of court that they didn't believe Lopez was the gunman. The prosecutor passed along the statement to Lopez's defense lawyer, who chose not to ask them to testify about their doubts.

Legal experts said the outcome of the Lopez case underscores the fragile nature of eyewitness identification testimony.

Brent Romney, a former prosecutor who is a professor at Western State University School of Law, said recent publicity about wrongful convictions is making the justice system more open to correcting its mistakes.

"It's not that more innocent people are being convicted, but rather we're looking more closely at those cases," Romney said. "This is due in large part to DNA evidence, which confirmed for prosecutors and defense attorneys that these claims of innocence are more than sour grapes from a convicted person."

While the Lopez family prepared to celebrate Tuesday afternoon, Tricia Lopez wondered whether her son and her family would ever recover.

"They make a terrible mistake and then go on their merry way," she said. "And I lose my son" for two years.

George Lopez said he understands he's fortunate to be free. "Every day I spend with my wife and son I cherish. I could get hit by a bus one day, or look at what happened to me, I got convicted of something I didn't do."

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