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DANA PARSONS / ORANGE COUNTY

She just wants vindication for her son

September 30, 2008|DANA PARSONS

Nobody wants to get bad news at 11 o'clock at night, but that's when Ronnie Carmona got the e-mail message last weekend. The legislative bill named for her dead son -- the bill she thought would honor him and bolster her fractured psyche -- had been vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger.

I know Ronnie well, and for much of the time that we talked Monday, I was caught between being a friend and being a reporter taking notes. One minute I was interviewing her, and the next I was beseeching her to find a way to move on with her life.

"It's political for him, but personal for me," she says of the governor's veto of AB 2937, also known as the Arthur Carmona Justice for the Wrongfully Convicted Act. "This would have been like vindication to Arthur. He died without getting what he wanted. When is anyone going to vindicate my son?"

The Arthur Carmona story is a troubling one. Arrested a few days after his 16th birthday in February 1998 while walking down a street in Costa Mesa and later charged with two armed robberies, he was convicted eight months later. With no physical evidence linking him to the crimes or to an accomplice twice his age who also was arrested, Carmona was done in by eyewitness testimony and a questionable police decision to let witnesses see him wearing a hat worn by the robber -- although there was no evidence linking Carmona to the hat.

I became interested in his case in 1999 and wrote a number of columns that lobbied for a new trial. In August 2000, the Orange County district attorney's office dismissed the charges after the Superior Court judge who presided over Carmona's trial ordered a hearing to see if he should be re-tried.

Freed within 24 hours, Carmona had spent 2 1/2 years behind bars.

In ways both angry and anguished, Ronnie Carmona has been fighting for her son since his arrest. When the dismissal of the charges still didn't bring the public vindication she wanted, she continued pressing the D.A.'s office for that.

Then, in the years after his release, Arthur Carmona got involved with the problem of wrongful convictions. He spoke at seminars and testified before state legislative committees.

Last February, at 26, Carmona was run down and killed by someone driving a pickup truck in a Santa Ana mobile home complex. Police impounded the truck, described the incident as a homicide and sent the case to the D.A.'s office a number of weeks ago.

The D.A.'s office is reviewing the case to determine what, if any, charges to file, a spokeswoman said.

A criminal charge against the man whose truck killed Arthur and the passage of the bill bearing her son's name would help heal her emotional wounds, she says.

"My life is dependent on this happening," she says. "I'm suffering through horrid insomnia. I go days and days without sleeping. I struggle to come to work."

A paralegal, Ronnie Carmona still lives in the La Habra apartment that she and Arthur were sharing when he died. She hasn't removed his clothes from the house, leaving some in the exact place where he had last left them.

At the root of her anxiety is the sense that the system has shut her out and defiled her son's name. "I'm angry at the world, the system, the governor," she says. "Why isn't anybody doing anything? The veto is the straw that broke the camel's back."

Orange County Assemblyman Jose Solorio, who sponsored AB 2937, remains hopeful. After Carmona's death, other advocates attached his name to the bill, which would have provided up to $10,000 over two years for a range of social services to help wrongfully convicted people re-enter society.

This was a "tough year" for bills requiring additional spending, he says. He thinks a scaled-back version could pass next year.

I ask Ronnie Carmona when she'll be able to move on with her life.

"That's a good question," she says, forlornly. "Right now I don't see tomorrow. I try to make it through day to day. That's the way I live life now and have since Feb. 17," the day Carmona died.

I tell her she needs to find someone to help work out her anger and sadness. The filing of charges and passage of the bill would have helped, she says. "They're the things I need in order for me to heal. Deep down inside, I think the reason I haven't gone to a therapist is because I need to stay angry. I need the wounds to be fresh, because it's the only way I have the strength to fight."

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Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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