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The Region

Man Jailed 2 Years Sees Case Voided

Courts: Authorities believe someone else committed robbery for which he was imprisoned. D.A., challenger disagree on the review process.

January 12, 2002|STUART PFEIFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A judge on Friday dismissed charges against a man who spent two years in prison for a robbery authorities now believe someone else committed--prompting a candidate for Orange County district attorney to propose an examination of recent wrongful convictions.

George Lopez's case marks the fifth instance in two years in which charges have been dropped against people convicted of robberies in the county. The cases turned on eyewitness testimony that ultimately proved unreliable.

Lopez, 19, was serving a 13-year sentence for the armed robbery of an Anaheim loan office when questions about his conviction began to surface. First, two victims of the crime stepped forward to profess his innocence. Last summer, another man told The Times that he, not Lopez, committed the crime.

Wally Wade, a veteran prosecutor running for district attorney, said the office should take a hard look at all five cases, then use lessons learned to train prosecutors and police in how to prevent wrongful convictions.

"The reason you analyze the past is to learn from it. I think these cases would be good examples," Wade said. "There are too many of these cases. I have no doubt the prosecutors and police are acting in good faith. But good faith doesn't get a man a year or 20 years of his life back."

Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who is seeking reelection, said his staff acted prudently in the Lopez case, agreeing to dismiss it this week after the office's investigation cast doubt on Lopez's guilt. He said Wade's suggested remedies are unnecessary.

"Our prosecutors train about eyewitness cases all the time," Rackauckas said. "This is not anything new. . . . He just sees this as an opportunity to try to help his campaign."

Rackauckas said that in 2000 he teamed with Public Defender Carl Holmes to launch a first-of-its-kind innocence project that will investigate prisoners' claims of wrongful convictions.

"The reason these people are being released is we have an attitude if someone's not guilty, we're going to let them out," Rackauckas said. "I didn't see that under the past administration."

Lopez spent more than two years in custody before a judge ordered his release in September as questions about his guilt mounted. Lopez left the Santa Ana courthouse Friday hand in hand with his wife, saying he hopes that the dismissal of the case will help him find a job.

He said no one should have to go through what he did.

"I lost my job. All the money I'd saved for an apartment and wedding went to pay the lawyer," Lopez said. "This can't keep happening. They're playing with people's lives."

Wade said he questioned Rackauckas' handling of the Lopez case, faulting the district attorney for not ordering an investigation when questions about the conviction first surfaced more than a year ago. He also said Rackauckas has a duty to examine what went wrong.

"We have to analyze why this is happening, because it shouldn't be," Wade said. "Police officers and D.A.s cringe at the idea that an innocent person is going to be convicted. So for this many to have been wrongly convicted is disturbing to everyone in law enforcement."

The five recent wrongful convictions in Orange County had some common threads. All involved armed robberies, and the convictions were based in large part on the testimony of victims.

Psychologists have reported for many years that such testimony can be unreliable. Wade said prosecutors need to make sure they take additional caution in dealing with those cases.

"All jurors receive special instructions in cases involving eyewitness testimony. Prosecutors should also receive specialized training on evaluating eyewitness testimony," Wade said.

Michael Giannini, director of the Orange County alternate defender's office, agreed that a new approach to eyewitness testimony is needed.

"Anyone in this business, we know the most unreliable evidence is eyewitness evidence," he said. "When it's a total stranger who's robbing you and you're under stress, the reliability goes way down."

Lopez said his big concern now is providing for his family and raising the money to have a traditional wedding. He and his wife, Leah, were married by Judge Daniel Didier moments after his sentencing in 2000. It was Didier who dismissed the case Friday.

"The only thing I remember from our wedding day is he had to sign the wedding certificate, and I could hear the handcuffs hitting the table," Leah Lopez said.

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