At 9 p.m. on March 13, 1999, Jose Cruz and Ramon Regis went to El Taco Loco restaurant at 1465 Magnolia in Long Beach, California. After they parked their car, a 14-year-old boy riding with them got out to try to sell a cell telephone.
Cruz and Regis were then confronted by a man who accused Cruz of being in an opposing gang.
Cruz, 29, said he no longer engaged in gang activity. He told them, “I’m an old man. I don’t play that anymore. I got kids. I’m old enough to be your dad.”
When the man began making gang signs, Regis, 24, said, “Hey, kick back. I’m from Long Beach, too.”
The man then began firing a handgun and Cruz and Regis fled. Cruz was shot in the ribs and buttocks. The gunman ran after Regis, firing as he ran. Regis died on the street of gunshot wounds to the chest and wrist.
Cruz at first identified 21-year-old Efren Hernandez as the gunman and only person involved in the shooting. Later, he said that 21-year-old Juan Herrera had picked up expended shells and that Javier Robles drove Herrera and Hernandez from the shooting. All three were arrested in April 1999.
Hernandez and Herrera were tried together in Los Angeles County Superior Court and were convicted after Cruz identified Hernandez as the gunman and Herrera as the man who picked up shell casings after the shooting had stopped.
Cruz said that Hernandez and Herrera fled the scene in a Monte Carlo automobile driven by Robles.
The 14-year-old boy--who had initially told police that Herrera was not at the shooting--testified that Herrera had admitted to him that he took part in the crime.
Herrera’s attorney presented testimony from Herrera’s family members that on the night of the shooting, they went to a tax preparation office to get their income taxes done and then went home.
The jury convicted both men of murder and attempted murder and on February 29, 2000 both were sentenced to 80 years to life in prison.
Attorney Matthew Kaestner was hired to defend Robles. His investigation of the case revealed new evidence showing Robles was not involved. The murder charge against Robles was dismissed prior to trial.
After Herrera's conviction was upheld on appeal, Herrera’s family contacted Kaestner who filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Herrera and Hernandez based on the new evidence.
The petition alleged that the Monte Carlo allegedly used to flee the shooting was actually on blocks and inoperable at the time. Kaestner was able to locate computer records from the tax preparer showing that the Herrera family was at the tax preparation office at the time of the shooting.
He also interviewed for the first time numerous people who were in a pool hall near the shooting as well as on the street and all said that Herrera and Hernandez were not at the scene. And some said only one shooter involved and no one was picking up shell casings.
Kaestner discovered that the 14-year-old had made a 911 call made after the shooting in which he said there was only one person involved in the shooting. The 14-year-old provided a sworn recantation of his trial statement, saying he had been pressured by Cruz to implicate Herrera.
On December 14, 2005, Superior Court Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani granted the petition, vacated the convictions and ordered a new trial.
The judge found that the trial defense attorneys for Hernandez and Herrera had provided inadequate legal assistance by failing to interview witnesses that would have uncovered evidence favorable to both men.
Rather than face retrial, Hernandez pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and was released. Herrera refused an offer to plead guilty and in September of 2006, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley