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DANA PARSONS / ORANGE COUNTY

Assembly bill could substitute for an exoneration

May 03, 2008|DANA PARSONS

Arthur Carmona didn't live long enough to get what he wanted the most: public vindication over convictions for two armed robberies that put him behind bars for 2 1/2 years before the Orange County district attorney dropped the charges against him.

But Carmona still has a shot at immortality: His name is on a proposed state Assembly bill that's made it through a committee on its way through the legislative mill.

Regular readers of this column know I have a stake in the Carmona story: After his conviction in October 1998, I wrote a string of columns starting several months later that urged a new trial for him. No physical evidence linked Carmona to the robberies in Costa Mesa and Irvine, and I came to mistrust the eyewitness identifications that led to his conviction and 12-year prison sentence.

In August 2000, after a judge granted Carmona a hearing to determine whether he should get a new trial, the district attorney pulled the plug on the case and he was freed. At the time, Carmona had been in custody since his arrest in February 1998, five days after his 16th birthday.

Two months ago, Carmona, 26, died after a pickup truck struck him on a street inside a mobile home park. Police called the death a homicide and said it apparently stemmed from a dispute at an early-morning party. No arrests have been made.

In recent years, Carmona had advocated for the wrongfully convicted. He had spoken to civic groups and a law-school class, as well as at state legislative hearings and public seminars.

Knowing he wasn't a "natural" as a public speaker, I always found it compelling that he'd accepted that role. It was obvious to me that, had he actually duped the system in getting an early prison release, he or anyone else would have thanked their lucky stars and dropped from sight.

But he didn't, and that leads us to Assemblyman Jose Solorio's bill that would put into law many of the things Carmona lobbied for. Solorio, (D-Santa Ana), chairs the Public Safety Committee and met Carmona last year.

He remembers him as a "humble young man, a little shy, because Sacramento can be a little intimidating." One of Solorio's interests has been what happens to inmates both while they're in prison and after their release. Aware of the adjustment problems of people who did commit the crimes, Solorio reasoned that wrongfully convicted people might have the same issues after their release.

Carmona had told me in post-release interviews of his bouts with anger and depression over his conviction and the suspicion that he knew some people still had about him. Beyond that, he had trouble starting over in society after girding himself for what he assumed would be a lengthy prison stint.

After his death, others who had lobbied with Carmona wanted to honor his efforts. The ACLU and the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (a nonpartisan group established by the state Senate) approached Solorio and asked if he'd sponsor a bill to help wrongfully convicted people reenter society.

They wanted to put Carmona's name on the bill, and, knowing his story, Solorio readily agreed. His AB 2937 is known as the "Arthur Carmona Justice for the Wrongfully Convicted Act."

Its key element, Solorio says, would assign a case manager to the wrongfully convicted person who is freed. The manager would be a go-between for the released person and the outside world, helping with housing, job opportunities and training, drug treatment or other forms of counseling.

The bill would also reduce some bureaucratic problems the wrongfully convicted sometimes face, sealing their criminal files and letting them know of compensation opportunities.

On Friday, I asked Ronnie Carmona, Arthur's mother, what having his name on a bill meant. "That would be the ultimate way of exonerating him," she said, "having his name attached to a bill and advocating for things he needed that he didn't get and that would help other people."

Carmona's work on wrongfully convicted cases and the specific problem of overreliance on eyewitness identifications proved to be the passion of his life's final act, she said. "This is what he said to me: 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, but I don't know how to make a living and do it.' We talked about different angles, but this was it for him."

Even with his name on a proposed bill, however, an irony lingers. Unlike inmates freed by DNA results that clear them of guilt, for example, Carmona was never declared innocent.

Rather, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas dismissed the charges when Carmona's appellate attorneys revealed potential holes in the case, including a sworn affidavit from a key witness who said she felt "misled" by prosecutors into thinking evidence linked Carmona to the crime. When she learned there was no such evidence, she said, she was no longer certain he was the robber.

However, I'm aware of at least two witnesses -- including one who was just a few feet away from the robber -- who stuck by their identifications.

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