On February 10, 1998, two armed men robbed a Denny’s Restaurant in Costa Mesa, California.
Two days later, a man wearing a Los Angeles Lakers cap robbed a juice bar in Irvine, California, at gunpoint. An employee of the juice bar recorded the license plate of the getaway car and it was stopped by Costa Mesa police. Shawn Kaiwi, the driver, was arrested.
At the same time, a police officer spotted Arthur Carmona walking down the street nearby. Carmona, then 16, matched a partial description of the gunman and was taken into custody by Irvine police and brought in for identification.
Two employees of the juice bar were not able to identify Carmona until the police had him put on a Lakers hat. The hat had been used in the robbery and found in the getaway car, but had not been linked to Carmona.
Similarly, two Denny’s employees were then brought in to identify Carmona, but could not do so until Carmona put on the cap.
In an effort to obtain a confession, police interrogated Carmona, telling him that the other defendant claimed Carmona carjacked him, and that he had been caught on videotape, but Carmona maintained his innocence.
At trial, the prosecution presented the eyewitness testimony of the four employees. Carmona’s defense attorney failed to interview key witnesses, including those who might have supported his alibi.
Kaiwi, the driver of the getaway car, pleaded guilty and ultimately said that Carmona was not involved.
In October 1998, despite the lack of physical evidence, an Orange County jury convicted Carmona of both armed robberies and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Investigation by a journalist prompted two of the eyewitnesses to come forward and express doubts about their identifications. One witness stated that she had been pressured by the prosecutor to testify as she did.
In January, 2000, the law firm of Sidley & Austin took on the case for free and in February persuaded the California Appeals Court to order the lower court to hold a hearing on the new evidence.
On June 30, 2000, a judge set a hearing to determine whether to overturn Carmona's conviction.
On August 21, 2000, the prosecution agreed to vacate the conviction, the charges were dismissed and Carmona was released.
After his release, Carmona began working to enact legislation to improve eyewitness identification procedures and implement changes to interrogations and the use of informants. He also was involved in starting a non-profit organization to help the wrongfully convicted and enrolled in a program to become a firefighter.
On February 17, 2008, he was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. In May 2011, Felix Abreu pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to six years in prison.
- Stephanie Denzel