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Marco Contreras

Other Los Angeles County CIU Exonerations
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On September 10, 1996, 47-year-old Jose Garcia was filling his truck with gasoline at a Mepco gas station in Compton, California when a man approached and shot him in the chest. Garcia ran, but the man chased him and fired six more times. Garcia fell and crawled under a vehicle parked nearby as the gunman jumped into the passenger side of a waiting Bronco and sped away.

Alicia Valladolid, a civilian intern for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, was in her car at a red light across from the gas station when she heard gunfire and saw Garcia and the gunman. She saw the gunman get into the Bronco and seconds later, as she drove on, the same Bronco turned in front of her. Valladolid saw the man in the front passenger seat and glimpsed the driver’s face. She wrote down the Bronco’s license plate number and drove to the sheriff’s office to make a report.

Garcia survived, though he was hospitalized for 23 days.

Police traced the Bronco to El Segundo Auto Sales, which reported that 20-year-old Marco Contreras had purchased the vehicle. Police went to Marco’s residence and found the Bronco. A woman there said she was married to Marco’s brother, Miguel, and that the car belonged to Miguel—not Marco.

Police impounded the vehicle and later that day, Miguel came to retrieve it. He told detectives he had purchased the car at an auction and that he drove it to work at a trucking company on the day of the shooting. The trucking firm was less than half a mile from the shooting. Police believed that Miguel was the driver of the Bronco on the day of the crime, and charged him with attempted murder, attempted robbery, and being an accessory after the fact.

On October 3, 1996, Marco was sitting in Los Angeles County Superior Court to observe Miguel’s preliminary hearing. Valladolid, who was there to testify, saw Marco in the gallery and told police he was the gunman. On January 23, 1997, Garcia and Valladolid separately viewed a live lineup and identified Marco as the gunman. Valladolid said she was “100% Positive.” Garcia, while identifying Marco as the gunman, also said that another man in the lineup “looks like” the gunman.

Marco was charged with attempted murder and attempted armed robbery. On February 27, 1997, Miguel pled guilty to being an accessory after the fact—the prosecution’s theory was that Marco shot Garcia and Miguel drove the Bronco away—and was sentenced to 16 months in prison.

Marco went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court in April 1997. The prosecution presented evidence that the Bronco was registered to Marco. Valladolid and Garcia identified Marco as the gunman.

The defense presented evidence that at the time of the crime, Marco was working as an unarmed security guard at a hospital in Bellflower, California, several miles from the shooting. Hospital records showed he worked from midnight until 8 a.m. that day—less than an hour before the shooting.

Four witnesses, including Marco’s sister, testified they saw him arrive home about 8:30 a.m., where he ate breakfast and went to sleep.

On April 30, 1997, the jury convicted Marco of attempted murder and attempted armed robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison plus seven years.

In January 1998, after Miguel was released from prison, he went to the Compton Police Department and told the detective on the case that Marco was not the gunman. The detective had long suspected that a street gang member named Antonio Salgado was involved in the shooting. After interviewing Miguel, the detective sought Salgado, but could not find him. He gave a statement to Marco’s lawyer that he believed Salgado shot Garcia. At that time, evidence would later show, Salgado had fled California and relocated to Missouri.

In 2012, Marco’s family sought help from Ricardo Perez, a recent graduate of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. After interviewing Marco, Perez was convinced of his innocence, and ultimately Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent took Marco’s case. In 2014, Adam Grant, program director at LPI, and Paula Mitchell, executive director of LPI, asked the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Habeas Corpus Litigation Team to conduct a joint re-investigation of the case.

In March 2017, after the District Attorney’s Office created a conviction review unit that took over the investigation, the prosecution filed a 15-page letter to Superior Court Judge William Ryan asking that Marco’s convictions be vacated.

The prosecution said that the reinvestigation showed that Garcia was the target of an unsuccessful contract killing carried out by Salgado and two other men. New evidence included audio recordings of Salgado admitting to being the gunman.

All three were taken into custody and charged with the attempted murder of Garcia.

On March 23, 2017, Marco’s convictions were vacated and the prosecution dismissed the charges. Marco was released after serving 20 years in prison.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/10/2017
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempt, Violent
Reported Crime Date:1996
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:Life
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No