Shortly after midnight on June 1, 2009, a fight broke out among patrons in a parking lot at Club Opera in Hollywood, California. It erupted because Danyelle Weaver, her brother, Michael, and a friend complained that they were unable to leave because a white BMW was parked too close to their auto.
There was a man behind the wheel of the BMW and a woman in the passenger side. The man allegedly began shouting that he wasn’t afraid to punch a woman and that he was “king of this city.” Danyelle Weaver got into her car from the passenger side and moved behind the wheel to try to back out, because the BMW was blocking her access to the driver’s side door. When she looked into the rearview mirror, she saw a group of men attacking her brother, Michael She got out and tried to intervene, but was punched herself.
Amanda Moore, another patron, saw Danyelle Weaver with blood on her face and ran over to the crowd with her arms raised in a questioning manner. The man who had been in the BMW got out and punched her in the face, knocking her unconscious.
Security personnel from the nightclub then went after the man. So did two other patrons, Thomas Murray and Marvin Hamlin. As the man got into the BMW, Murray tried to get behind it to record the license plate number. Hamlin ran to the driver’s side door, grabbed the door handle and demanded the man get out of the car. Just as Hamlin managed to open the door, the driver accelerated in reverse. The open door hit Murray with enough force to knock him down and punch out the driver’s side window, which fell intact to the pavement.
The driver continued in reverse until he hit a fence and then drove forward rapidly toward the exit.
Meanwhile, the slugfest continued in the parking lot and Michael Weaver was knocked unconscious. As the BMW sped away, the car drove over Weaver and then stopped when people began shouting that there was a person under the car. But instead of getting out, the man accelerated, driving over Weaver’s head and escaping.
Weaver suffered numerous facial fractures and was hospitalized for weeks. The injuries left him with partial facial paralysis. Murray required two surgeries on his spine.
A witness told police the passenger in the BMW was a woman named Jennifer Williams. In July, 2010—11 months later—police found Williams and interviewed her by telephone. She repeatedly said she had never been in a fight at Club Opera and that she did not have a black male friend who drove a white BMW. Asked by police if she had a black male friend who was short, Williams said she had a few friends that fit that description, but the only one she could recall by name was 29-year-old Riolordo Appling, an aspiring singer in Los Angeles.
Williams said that the only car she ever knew Appling to drive was a Range Rover.
Police then conducted a records check on Appling and learned that he had received a traffic citation in October 2009 while driving a white BMW. Police determined that the car was owned by Appling’s then-girlfriend, Jackie Martinez.
Martinez no longer owned the vehicle, so police located the owner and towed the car to a police garage. No forensic evidence was recovered linking the car to the hit and run accident. No forensic report was even prepared.
Police then put Appling’s photograph into a photo lineup and showed to several witnesses to the fight and the hit and run. Tommy Clayton and Amanda Moore each pointed to two people and each included Appling. Thomas Murray said Appling was “close to the guy I remember.” The witnesses were shown a photograph of the car seized by police and some said it was either similar to or was in fact the BMW driven by the person who struck Murray and Michael Weaver.
Danyelle Weaver said she could not identify Appling because the parking lot was too dark and the driver wore a baseball cap that obscured his face. She said that when police called her about coming in to view a photo lineup, they told her Appling’s name. She said she found his photograph on Facebook, but still was unable to identify him when she viewed the photo lineup.
Appling was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon, two counts of leaving the scene of an accident and battery.
On February 22, 2012, Appling went on trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Before jury selection, Appling complained to the judge that his lawyer had refused to examine the car. Appling maintained that an examination would show no damage to the vehicle. The judge declined to order an examination and the following day, Appling didn’t go to court, but went to see another lawyer about getting new representation. The lawyer said it was too late. No such examination was done.
When Appling came back to court on February 24, his bond was raised to $400,000 and he was taken into custody. The trial then commenced.
Clayton, Murray and Moore pointed to Appling in court as the driver and the man who punched Moore.
Appling’s lawyer conducted no investigation of the car and devoted his defense to attacking the police for failing to find any forensic evidence linking the car to the incident.
In closing argument, the prosecutor told the jury: “Is there a link between the defendant and the car? Of course there is. What are the odds, ladies and gentlemen, that he gets a ticket in the same exact model of car, or (at) least the same body style, the shape…That is the car (prosecution witnesses) identified. Ladies and gentlemen, do we have a match?”
Appling was convicted on all counts on March 5, 2012.
Before he was sentenced, Appling’s family went back to the lawyer Appling had consulted at the beginning of his trial. That lawyer referred the family to attorney Kiana Sloan-Hiller, who once again tracked down the car and arranged for the car to be examined by Greg Barnett, an automobile and truck forensic expert.
Sloan-Hiller then filed a motion for a new trial based on Barnett’s conclusion that the existing driver’s side window on the car was consistent with the original window when the car came off the assembly line. The District Attorney’s office retained an expert of its own who concluded that that it was possible that the entire door had been replaced by someone who did it with such great care that no marks were left behind.
In response, the defense went to the service manager at Beverly Hills BMW, where the car had been serviced when Jackie Martinez owned it. There were no records of any work being done on the door or window. Moreover, the manager said that when the car was sold to Martinez, it was equipped with an anti-theft system that protects different areas of the car, including the driver’s side door, with permanent, tamper-resistant labels visible only under UV light. The manager investigated and determined that all the labels were still present and intact.
On November 2, 2012, the motion for new trial was granted. On January 2, 2013, the charges were dismissed and Appling was released. In December 2013, Appling filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation from the city of Los Angeles.
– Maurice Possley