On January 26, 1997, a quarrel over a woman in a nightclub escalated into a fight between two street gangs in a next-door parking lot in downtown Santa Barbara, California. Michael Torres, 23, was killed and 21-year-old James Miranda was wounded.
The first police officer to the scene found 22-year-old Efren Cruz walking down a ramp in the lot, in a daze, apparently drunk. He was taken into custody and he was found to be carrying a utility tool that had a knife blade. A test for gunshot residue on his hands was positive. A 38-caliber revolver was found on the second floor of the parking structure and was linked to the shooting.
Not long after, a man came forward to say he and his date were driving out of the parking lot when he saw a man enter a stairwell and begin shooting. Shown a security video from the nightclub, he identified Cruz as the man he saw in the stairwell who was firing a handgun.
Cruz, a man with no criminal record and who just weeks earlier had been honorably discharged from the military, was charged with the murder of Torres and attempted murder of Miranda.
Immediately after the shooting, police identified a number of gang members from the security videos taken that night at the nightclub, and rounded them up. One of those, Gerardo Reyes, was Cruz’s cousin. All denied any knowledge of the shooting.
Two of the gang members were identified by rival gang members as kicking and beating Miranda and Torres. One was a fugitive and the other pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the crime and was placed on probation.
Cruz went on trial in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on October 14, 1997.
A gang expert identified Cruz as an associate of the street gang believed responsible for the shooting. Cruz was identified by the eyewitness as the gunman and the gunshot residue evidence was presented.
Cruz testified on his own behalf and said he went to the Hurricane nightclub with his girlfriend and other friends, including Reyes, where he got drunk. He said that he didn’t remember much of the evening, but did recall that when he was in the parking lot, someone came up next to him and began firing a gun. He said he put his hands to face and ducked down. He said that when the shooting stopped, he looked for his girlfriend and her car, but she had left. He said he was walking away when he was arrested.
On December 1, 1997, after several days of deliberation, the jury convicted Cruz of second degree murder and attempted murder with a firearm. He was sentenced to 41 years to life in prison.
Two years later, in 1999, Cruz’s cellmate, Pedro Zuniga, wrote a letter to the Dennis McMaster, the Oxnard police detective who had investigated the shooting. Zuniga said that Cruz’s cousin, Reyes, was the gunman.
McMaster, who had initially suspected Reyes in the shooting, went to Santa Barbara law enforcement, but they dismissed Zuniga’s claim as a bogus attempt to free Cruz.
McMaster then enlisted the support of authorities in neighboring Ventura County. In May 2000, Ventura County prosecutors arranged for Zuniga to be transferred to the Ventura County Jail, where Reyes was being held after being arrested on charges arising from a stabbing.
On August 25, 2000, investigators arranged for Zuniga to wear a wire and be transported to court along with Reyes. While they were in a holding cell at the courthouse, Reyes admitted that he was the gunman. “I did it, dog,” Reyes said.
With the new evidence, Cruz’s lawyers filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus and a hearing was held over 18 days beginning in June 2001.
By that time, Santa Barbara authorities had interviewed Reyes and he claimed he was lying when he said he committed the shooting. Reyes claimed he knew Zuniga was wearing a wire.
At the hearing, Santa Barbara prosecutors sought to discredit the confession, claiming that Reyes was merely trying to bolster his reputation as a gang member.
On October 12, 2001, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa set aside Cruz’s conviction. “(T)here is clearly more than a preponderance of the substantial credible evidence to prove that Gerardo Reyes, and not Efren Cruz, was the shooter,” the judge said.
The judge also singled out McMaster for his dogged pursuit of the case after Cruz was convicted.
On October 23, 2001, prosecutors dismissed the charges and Cruz was released from prison.
Cruz later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that prosecutors and police withheld evidence from his trial lawyers. That included evidence that a Santa Barbara police officer had failed to disclose notes of interviews with a woman who said she heard her brother and Reyes talking about a gun being hidden under a car in the parking lot after the shooting.
The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge who ruled the failure to disclose this information did not prejudice Cruz.
– Maurice Possley