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Sitcom Is a Reality Show for Suspect

A man accused of murder is exonerated months after the crime, thanks to HBO footage.

June 03, 2004|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

The first mention of how a television show helped absolve Juan Catalan of murder was a six-paragraph story in the latest New Yorker's Talk of the Town section.

Since then, there's been an explosion of interest in the story, although the whole thing happened in Los Angeles five months ago.

But on Wednesday afternoon, the 26-year-old Catalan and his lawyer, Todd Melnik, were on their way to New York for a round of morning talk shows. They've already been on local and national radio and television, not to mention ESPN, the sports channel.

ESPN was interested because Catalan was at Dodger Stadium with his daughter and friends when the shooting he would be accused of occurred. That same night, the sitcom "Curb Your Enthusiasm" was being filmed at the ballpark.

"It's picking up steam because it's such an incredible story," said Melnik, whose tale received scant publicity at the time.

The story began in May of last year when a 16-year-old named Martha Puebla testified against Catalan's brother in another case.

Then on May 12, she was shot to death in front of her Sun Valley home. Several months after that, Juan Catalan was arrested on suspicion of killing her. At the time, police believed that he had committed the crime because of the teenager's testimony.

Catalan said he was innocent and offered to take a lie detector test, Melnik said. Catalan also said he had an alibi: He and his 6-year-old daughter, along with two friends, were watching the Atlanta Braves drub the Dodgers, 11-4, at the same time Puebla was being gunned down. But police told Catalan they had a witness who put him at the crime scene.

"During the hours-long interview, my client is crying and pleading that the detectives have the wrong guy and that he'd never killed anyone," Melnik said.

Catalan said he had ticket stubs, but it was clear that would not be enough to place him at the stadium. Enter Melnik, who set about doing two things: looking for crowd shots taken during the televised game and pinning down Catalan's location when he made cellphone calls during and after the game.

Melnik had no luck with the "Dodger Vision" footage, but he did learn that "Curb Your Enthusiasm" had been filming at the stadium that evening. He asked HBO if he could view the stadium footage for the show, which had not yet aired. HBO agreed and, a short time into the search, Melnik spotted Catalan in the corner of a frame.

"Lo and behold, there's my client, his daughter and two friends," Melnik said. "I jumped out of my chair."

The film had time codes showing that it was 9:10 p.m., about an hour before the shooting. And cellphone records showed that Catalan was still in the vicinity of Dodger Stadium at the time of the killing.

When Melnik introduced that evidence, the judge dismissed the case and freed Catalan last January.

"If he'd stayed home and watched the game on television, he'd have been in big trouble," Melnik said.

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