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Marco Milla

Other Los Angeles County Cases
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On September 29, 2001, Erica Hightower and her roommate, Senya Williams, invited some friends, including Hightower’s 19-year-old brother, Robert, to a party at their new apartment in the Gateway Harbor area of Los Angeles, California.

Robert called his sister and said they were having trouble finding the apartment, so Erica and Williams came outside to wave them down. Moments later, the vehicle arrived and Robert and his friends began to get out. At that moment, a man wearing a black hooded sweatshirt approached from the across the street and began firing a handgun. Robert Hightower was killed and two of his friends, Ramar Jenkins and Steven Flowers, were wounded.

Los Angeles police detectives believed the shooting was committed by a member of the 204th Street gang, a group of Hispanics who targeted Hightower and his friends because they were black.

Jenkins told police the gunman was 5 feet 7 inches tall, 150 to 160 pounds, with a shaved head, green eyes and ear piercings. Jenkins also said the shooter had a vertical scar on the right side of his face.

On October 11, 2001, detectives showed Jenkins a photographic lineup containing a photograph of 19-year-old Marco Milla, who was a member of the 204th Street gang with a scar on his face. The photograph had been taken in 1999 when Milla was 17. Five months earlier, Milla had been identified by a man who said Milla had threatened him with a handgun, although police did not charge him with the crime. Jenkins did not identify anyone in the lineup.

Five days later, on October 16, detectives showed Jenkins another photographic lineup containing a more recent photograph of Milla and Jenkins identified him as the gunman.

That same day, detectives showed a photographic lineup containing the 1999 photograph of Milla to Erica Hightower. She said that the picture of Milla “looked like” the gunman. Detectives then showed her the photospread with the more recent picture of Milla and she identified him as the gunman. In addition, Traci McCombs, who was arriving to attend the party at the time the gunshots erupted, identified Milla from a photospread containing his more recent picture.

Milla went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court in December 2002. Jenkins, Erica Hightower and McCombs each identified him as the gunman. The prosecution presented a black hooded sweatshirt, two gun cases and a gun cleaning kit seized from Milla’s home when he was arrested.

The defense presented the testimony of a nearby resident who said he heard the gunshots and looked outside to see someone running away. He did not see the gunman’s face, but said the gunman had short hair—not a shaved head as the prosecution witnesses described.

On December 23, 2002, the jury convicted Milla of one count of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder, and also found that the crime had been committed with a handgun and was racially motivated. Milla hired a new defense lawyer who filed a motion for a new trial in June 2003 that asserted that another witness, Maria Flores, had been discovered. Flores, according to the motion, saw the shooting and said the gunman was not Milla. She said she had not come forward because she was fearful of gang retaliation. At a hearing on the motion for new trial, Flores said the gunman was a member of the 204th Street gang known as “Downer,” who later tried to date her, but she had spurned his advances. Flores said that when she told Downer that she wouldn’t date anyone who had killed someone and let Milla be convicted for it, Downer tacitly admitted to being the gunman.

On August 1, 2003, the motion for new trial was denied on the ground that the defense could have located Flores prior to trial and called her as a witness. Milla then was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 2010, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office informed Milla’s defense attorney that in the course of an investigation into Harbor area street gangs, officials in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had learned of a previously unknown witness to the shooting. The witness was a confidential source who, according to authorities, had provided reliable information on past occasions.

The witness said that on the day of the shooting, a group of 204th Street gang members gathered at the home of one of its members to watch a boxing match. After the match, they congregated on the front lawn. A black SUV was seen circling the block and some of the gang members became concerned about the possibility of a drive-by shooting.

One of the gang members—Julio Munoz, whose nickname was “Downer”— said that if the SUV came back again, he was going to shoot at it. Moments later, the SUV parked and Hightower and his friends emerged. The witness said Munoz walked into the street and began firing the gun. The source said Milla was not at the scene at all.

In June 2012, an attorney for Milla filed a state-law petition for a writ of habeas corpus seeking a new trial. The petition cited the new evidence provided by the witness identified by DHS as well as evidence that the detectives investigating the crime had been told by someone else before Milla’s arrest that Munoz was the gunman. That information, however, was not disclosed to the prosecution or the defense, the petition said. A hearing was held in June 2014 and the witness testified that Munoz was the gunman and that Milla was not present at the shooting. On June 30, 2014, the writ was granted and Milla’s convictions were vacated. On August 11, 2014, he was released on bond pending a retrial.

On January 15, 2015, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges.

Milla sought compensation for wrongful imprisonment from the state of California. In February 2016, he was awarded $654,500. Milla also filed a federal civil rights suit against the Los Angeles police department. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2017.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/7/2016
Last Updated: 8/5/2017
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder
Reported Crime Date:2001
Convicted:2002
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:19
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No