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Man With TV Show Alibi Sues LAPD

He accuses police of violating his civil rights after taped footage puts him at Dodger Stadium at time of slaying.

August 05, 2004|David Rosenzweig | Times Staff Writer

A man who spent five months behind bars on a murder charge until television footage proved he was attending a Dodger baseball game at the time of the slaying is accusing the Los Angeles Police Department in a lawsuit of violating his civil rights.

The suit, filed in federal court Tuesday, contends that a police detective encouraged a witness to pick 26-year-old Juan Catalan out of a photo lineup of possible suspects, in violation of department regulations.

The suit also accuses the LAPD of negligence, defamation, false arrest and infliction of emotional distress on Catalan and his family.

"This was a nightmare that only by good fortune turned out right," said Catalan's civil attorney, Gary S. Casselman. "The detectives in this case didn't do their jobs properly, and they didn't follow proper procedures."

Catalan, who worked at his family's machine-tool business in Sun Valley, was arrested Aug. 12, 2003, in connection with the slaying of Martha Puebla, 16, outside her Sun Valley home in May 2003.

Puebla had testified in a murder case in which Catalan's brother, Mario, was a co-defendant. Detectives focused their investigation on Juan Catalan, suspecting that he had shot the teenager because of her testimony.

When questioned by police, Catalan insisted he was at Dodger Stadium with his daughter and two friends on the night of the slaying and had ticket stubs to support his alibi. He also volunteered to take a lie-detector test, but police investigators rejected the offer, according to the lawsuit. Investigators said they had a witness who could place Catalan at the crime scene.

Catalan's criminal defense lawyer, Todd Melnik, set about trying to prove his client's innocence by poring over footage of crowd shots taken during the televised game between the Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves. An examination of "Dodger Vision" footage proved fruitless, and Melnik thought he had struck out until he learned that on that same night the HBO sitcom "Curb Your Enthusiasm" was being shot at the ballpark.

HBO agreed to let Melnik view the footage and "Lo and behold, there's my client, his daughter and two friends," the defense attorney recalled recently. "I jumped out of my chair."

Melnik also obtained cellphone records establishing that Catalan was in the Dodger Stadium area at the time of the slaying.

Armed with that evidence, Melnik went to court. A Superior Court dismissed the murder case and ordered Catalan freed.

Named as defendants in the federal lawsuit are Police Chief William J. Bratton; Capt. William Sweet, commander of the North Hollywood Division; and Dets. Mike Coffey, Martin Pinner and Tim Shaw. An LAPD spokesman said the department did not comment on pending lawsuits.

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