On May 14, 2003, three men entered a Rite-Aid store on North Vermont Street in Los Angeles, California, where they removed security tags from gift bags and dental strips worth $108, stuffed them in their pants and attempted to walk out.
Store security officers John Romero and Juan Luken were watching them on a video camera. When the three moved to leave, Luken entered the store from the outside and attempted to stop them in the vestibule between the two sets of doors leading into the store. One of the men pulled out a handgun and told Luken to back off. All three then fled.
Los Angeles police officer Richard Gadsby responded to the store and viewed the videotape. The following day, Gadsby was on patrol and stopped in traffic when he noticed 21-year-old Robert Cuevas sitting in a car next to him. Gadsby knew Cuevas from the neighborhood and they chatted briefly. Cuevas had his usual mustache and, for the first time in Gadsby’s memory, also had a patch of hair below his lower lip.
That evening, Gadsby viewed the video again and concluded that Cuevas resembled the gunman in the robbery, though he wasn’t sure. He created a photographic lineup of six men that included Cuevas and Luken and Romero both identified Cuevas as the gunman.
On July 23, 2003, a search warrant was executed at Cuevas’s home, but police found nothing connected to the robbery or any of clothing matching the description of the clothing of the robbers given by the security officers.
Cuevas went to the police station where he was interrogated and was shown the video images. He denied being involved. He said he had been in that Rite-Aid a few times before. He was then arrested and charged with robbery with the use of a firearm. An analysis of the store video determined that the gunman had taken $40 worth of items and the other two men had taken the remaining $68 worth of items.
In December 2003, Cuevas went on trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Luken and Romero both identified Cuevas as the gunman.
The defense presented an expert who, using the technology then available, said he had enhanced the videotape and that he concluded Cuevas was not involved in the robbery. Another expert testified about the frailties of eyewitness identification.
On December 9, 2003, Cuevas was convicted of robbery and the use of a firearm.
At his sentencing hearing, Kathleen Farrell testified that Cuevas had worked as a handyman and painter for five years and that she regularly gave him money for purchases of supplies and he had never cheated her. Maria Stapel testified similarly that he worked for her and was honest.
He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Cuevas appealed the conviction and also filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Both were combined and denied on May 18, 2005.
Cuevas filed a petition for review and a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the California Supreme Court, which denied both petitions on September 7, 2005.
In 2006, Cuevas filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that his trial counsel had been ineffective for failing to call two witnesses who could have testified that his physical appearance, clothing and gait were different that the gunman. The petition was denied on February 6, 2008.
The following day, his former employer, Kathleen Farrell, wrote a letter to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office saying that Cuevas did not commit the robbery and requested a re-investigation.
Not long after, Cuevas’s appellate attorney informed the district attorney’s office that another enhanced version of the video recording had been made using state of the art technology that allowed for the creation of still photographs. The attorney contended the new photographs showed that Cuevas was not involved.
The district attorney’s office referred the case to the Los Angeles County Post Conviction Assistance Center, which filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus on August 28, 2008. Attorney Gigi Gordon began to examine the video and determined that it was a fifth or sixth generation copy of the original video. She located the original video and the district attorney’s office enhanced it and produced a DVD containing clearer footage of the robbery.
On September 5, 2008, deputy district attorney Brent Ferreira, who was in charge of the district attorney’s habeas unit, concluded that Cuevas was not the robber, and joined in the petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition was granted, the conviction was vacated, the charges were dismissed and Cuevas was released.
In February 2011, the California Victims Compensation Board awarded Cuevas $162,700 in compensation–$100 for each of the 1,627 days he spent behind bars.
– Maurice Possley