In August 1995, a Honda Civic cut in front of a Toyota 4-Runner in San Jose, California, causing a collision near the intersection of White Road and East Hills Drive.
The driver of the Civic fled, leaving behind a pregnant woman, Rosalia Gomez, and her two young children.
Bystanders told police that Miguel Sermeno, who was standing nearby, resembled the driver, but when police asked Gomez if he was the driver, she said he was not. After an officer suggested that she could be charged with a crime if she lied, Gomez fingered Sermeno as the driver.
Sermeno, who contended he had heard the crash and walked over to see what happened, was charged with felony hit-and-run.
As the case neared trial, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office discovered that the registered owner of the Civic, Cuahumetoc H. Lopez, shared an address with Gomez in Milpitas, California. A defense lawyer for Sermeno also was looking for Lopez, but could not locate him.
Prosecutor Terence Tighe failed to provide information to the defense that could have enabled the defense to find Lopez. At trial, held before a judge without a jury, Tighe presented testimony from four witnesses who identified Sermeno as the driver. Gomez recanted her testimony that Sermeno was the driver, said she had never heard of Lopez and claimed the driver was a friend named “Juan.”
Sermeno’s lawyer elected not to present testimony from Gomez’s children, who were in the car, even though both said Sermeno was not the driver.
During the trial, Sermeno’s lawyer obtained a photograph of Lopez, the registered owner of the car, but the judge refused to allow the defense to show it to the prosecution witnesses.
Sermeno was convicted and sentenced to eight months in jail.
After the trial, evidence emerged that Lopez was the father of the child that Gomez was pregnant with at the time of the accident. Sermeno’s appellate attorney moved for a new trial. In 1997, long after Sermeno had served his time and been released, a California Appellate Court affirmed the conviction, but ordered a hearing to consider whether the failure of Sermeno’s trial attorney to call the children in the car as witnesses was ineffective assistance of counsel.
Rather than pursue the case any further, the prosecution dismissed the case.
– Maurice Possley