Soledad Gonzalez, left, mother of Giovanni Ramirez, and her sons legal… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)
It was one of those phone calls a defense attorney could go an entire career and never receive:
You might want to talk to this guy, Tony. I think he might be innocent.
The guy was Giovanni Ramirez, a gang member and ex-convict arrested by an LAPD SWAT team on suspicion of the beating of a Giants fan in the Dodger Stadium parking lot.
Tony is Anthony Brooklier, a blue-chip lawyer in Los Angeles whose clients have ranged from Mafia dons to petty thieves.
Brooklier had heard about the arrest "just like everybody else." From the news conference on May 22, when Police Chief Charlie Beck stood before TV cameras at Dodger Stadium and called it "a significant, significant break and one that will lead to a successful investigation, I'm sure."
The next morning, Brooklier read in The Times that the tip had come from a parole agent who thought Ramirez resembled the police sketch and had recently altered his neck tattoos. "I remember thinking 'This is it?' They'd better have more than this."
Five minutes later, his telephone rang. It was a Las Vegas lawyer, inviting Brooklier to get involved.
Ramirez's girlfriend lives in Las Vegas, where she'd "had problems with the law," Brooklier said. She'd gone to her attorney when Ramirez was arrested and said she knew he didn't commit the crime because she'd been with him that day in Los Angeles.
Alibis like that are a dime a dozen, but when Brooklier visited Ramirez in jail that night, his attorney instincts kicked in.
"He had a bewildered look," the lawyer recalled. "He wasn't defiant … like, 'They don't have enough evidence. They can't convict me!' There was something in his demeanor, his insistence: 'I wasn't there. It wasn't me.'
"Like he was outright innocent."
It took two months for police to accept and admit it publicly. Ramirez was finally "exonerated" — Chief Beck's term — last week, after two new suspects had been taken into custody.
Brooklier took "a little flak" from the media when he suggested early on that his client was innocent. But by then, he was relying on more than instinct.
"I know he's no choirboy," Brooklier told me. "But within 48 hours, my investigators had 11 detailed statements from people who remembered where Ramirez was" on the day paramedic Bryan Stow was attacked. And it wasn't Dodger Stadium.
In the next few weeks, Brooklier would compile a dossier that pointed straight toward innocence: cellphone records, alibi validation, videos of Ramirez with hair on his head days after the suspects had been described by witnesses as bald, and the results of a polygraph test administered by a former FBI agent indicating that Ramirez had never been to Dodger Stadium and had nothing to do with the beating.
Still, the police didn't publicly budge. And the public, it seemed, was more impressed by Ramirez's gang tattoos and Beck's certitude than with Brooklier's mounting evidence.
Ramirez was being held in jail on a parole violation, so it didn't matter that weeks went by without the district attorney's filing charges. Except to Ramirez and his friends and family, who'd taken to following Brooklier around wearing "Free Gio" T-shirts.
"He was probably the most hated man in Los Angeles" during the two months between arrest and exoneration, Brooklier said of Ramirez. And despite being cleared in the stadium beating, Ramirez is still behind bars on a parole violation because a gun was discovered in the crowded apartment he was visiting when he was arrested.
But Brooklier's got no quarrel with the police. "LAPD made a mistake. But you have to give them credit for continuing to investigate and ultimately exonerating him."
"The system worked," he said, "even though my client was wronged by it."
I say his client was wronged not by the system but by preening public officials who prompted a rush to judgment in their desperation to close this chapter.
I don't fault the police for arresting Ramirez. They followed hundreds of tips, interviewed dozens of possible suspects and were understandably eager for a break in the case that had frustrated an entire city.
The news of Ramirez's arrest had been "the words I'd been waiting seven weeks to hear," Beck said at that triumphant news conference. He accepted thanks from Stow's family, kudos from the mayor's office and congratulations from a public that had to begun to lose faith, to worry that our city's legacy might be that thugs win.
Los Angeles Times reporters dissected the case and pointed out some of what went wrong: a case built on a hunch and shaky IDs. An investigation kept out of the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department's most experienced team. A decision to jump the gun with overconfident public pronouncements before the hard work of firming up the case had been done.
The case against the two new suspects appears to be solid and growing stronger.
So why am I still so bothered by what happened? And what's the lesson, if any, we learn from this?