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Art Tobias

Other exonerations with false confessions
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About 12:40 a.m., on August 18, 2012, two gunmen—one standing on the sidewalk in front of an apartment complex and the other across the street—opened fire on a group of people in the 1400 block of Alvarado Terrace in Los Angeles, California. Twenty-three-year-old Alex Castaneda was killed and two others, Saul Barragan and Leonardo Villanueva, both in their 20s, were wounded.

After the shooting stopped, the shooter across the street shouted, “La Mara,” a commonly used name for the criminal street gang Mara Salvatrucha or M.S. A third person drove up in a red car, picked up the shooters and sped off.

In less than two hours, police determined that two surveillance cameras, one on the apartment building, recorded the gunman who was on the sidewalk. Two witnesses said the gunman on the sidewalk was wearing a white shirt. One said the man was 20 to 30 years old. The other said the man was 18 to 19 years old and weighed 190 to 200 pounds. Neither said the man was wearing glasses.

Los Angeles police officer Marshall Cooley, a gang expert, went to the scene and viewed the video. He said the shooter was 13-year-old Art Tobias, although Tobias was 4 feet 11 inches tall, weighed 110 pounds, and wore glasses.

According to Cooley, Tobias’s mother, Helen Contreras, had come to the police station at about 9 p.m. the previous the evening to report her son had not come home. Contreras had been referred to Cooley because she lived in M.S. territory and he was an expert on that gang. Contreras showed Cooley a photo of Tobias on her cell phone—the first time he ever saw a photograph of Tobias.

Just a few hours after seeing the photo, Cooley said he recognized Tobias on the video. He summoned Dora Born, another gang detective, to the scene. Born was shown the cell phone photo of Tobias, then viewed the video, and identified Tobias as the gunman.

On Monday, August 20, 2012, detectives went to Berendo Middle School where Tobias was an eighth-grade student. There, a school police officer, Daniel East, viewed the video and said the gunman was physically too large to be a middle school student. However, East said that although he could not make an identification based on the video, he was “thinking of” someone who was too small to be in the video—Tobias. The detectives then told East “that’s who we think it is.” Ultimately, East identified the gunman on the video as Tobias.

Roger Negroe, an assistant dean at the school, viewed the video and said he could not identify the gunman. He said the gunman looked “chubby.”

Nonetheless, at 3:30 p.m., the detectives arrested Tobias and took him to the police station, where he was put in an interrogation room and handcuffed to a chair. At 4 p.m., Tobias’s mother, Helen Contreras, called and was informed her son was at the station. She was interviewed from 4:30 p.m. until 5:10 p.m. Contreras said that her son had been with a friend during the evening of the shooting and that he arrived home at 12:42 a.m.—almost exactly the time of the shooting. She said she remembered the time because she had pointed it out on her phone when lecturing Tobias for being late. She said she had called the police station at that time to cancel the missing person report.

Detectives then showed her a still image from the video in an attempt to get Contreras to identify Tobias as the gunman. She replied, “That’s not him. That’s not what he was wearing when he came home.” In fact, she said, Tobias was wearing a black Scooby-Doo t-shirt, not a white shirt.

For several hours, the detectives interrogated Tobias. They falsely told him that his mother had identified him on the video, that others had implicated him—that someone had “rolled” on him—and that police officers had identified him in the video. “We got you on video, bro,” one detective said. “Juries know that criminals [are] stupid…The bottom line is they’re going to see the video. They’re going to say, ‘Yeah, it looks like him.’ [The prosecution] going to bring your mom to take the stand [and say], ‘Yeah, I identify [him] as my son.’”

The detectives promised him leniency if he confessed and promised to get him “treatment.”

Tobias adamantly denied being in the video or having an involvement in the shooting. He denied being involved in the M.S. gang as well.

When Tobias said he was with a friend in Arcadia, a city near Pasadena, and not on Alvarado Terrace nearly 20 miles away, a detective replied, “You weren’t in Arcadia. You were right there on Alvarado Terrace blasting on people.”

“That’s not me,” Tobias said. “I don’t know how else to tell you. That’s not me.”

“Okay, well,” the detective replied. “You know what? We’re here to speak to you to get your statement. Now if your statement is that that’s not you, don’t worry. We’re going to write it down just the way you said. That’s not—” “Could I have an attorney?” Tobias interrupted. “Because that’s not me.”

“But—okay. No, don’t worry. You’ll have the opportunity,” the detective said.

However, Tobias was not provided an opportunity to speak to an attorney. His requests to speak to his mother were denied as well. One detective said falsely said she had gone home.

Ultimately, after being bombarded with accusations and the detectives’ claims that no one would believe the man on the video wasn’t Tobias and more than 20 references to him as a “cold-blooded killer,” Tobias confessed to the shooting. He gave details that the detectives had fed to him during the questioning.

After giving a confession, Tobias was allowed to speak to his mother. Their conversation was covertly recorded. The first thing he said was that he did not commit the crime and that “they forced me” to confess. He told his mother that he only confessed because “they were going to tell the judge that I’m a cold-blooded killer and I’m going to get more time.”

Tobias was named in a juvenile delinquency petition charging one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder. His adjudication hearing began on May 7, 2013 in Los Angeles County Superior Court before Juvenile Court Referee Benjamin Campos, who heard the case without a jury.

Tobias’s defense attorney moved to suppress the confession as illegally obtained because the detectives—although they had given Tobias his Miranda warning—did not stop the interrogation when he asked, “Could I have an attorney?” The defense also said the confession was improperly coerced.

Campos ruled that the request was conditional, not equivocal, and that the detectives did not have to end the interrogation. Campos also said there was insufficient evidence that the confession was coerced.

The prosecution called three witnesses to the shooting—Saul Barragan and Leonard Villanueva, who were wounded, and Ricky Mora, who escaped injury. None of them was able to identify Tobias as the gunman in the video.

Daniel East, the police officer at the school, testified that in May or June 2012—several months before the shooting—he stopped Tobias for being truant. At that time, East testified, Tobias said that he wanted to be a member of a gang or a tagging crew, but he didn’t know which gang to join though whichever gang he joined, he would be “loyal to that gang.” East said he searched Tobias’s backpack and found some paperwork with “gang-style or graffiti writing.”

Detective Cooley testified and said he identified Tobias in the video. He also testified that he looked at Tobias’s Facebook page and saw references to M.S., including a photo of two M.S. gang members who had been fatally shot with the caption “rest in peace.” In other photographs, Tobias was in front of a wall with M.S. written at the top with the name “Casper” to the left of Tobias. According to Cooley, the shooting that killed Castaneda and wounded Barragan and Villanueva was done for the benefit or at the direction of the M.S. gang.

The video was shown and Tobias’s confession was entered into evidence as well.

The defense called two witnesses—Tobias’s mother, Helen Contreras, and Michael Jones, a video expert.

Contreras testified that on the day of the shooting, Tobias came home after school. She said she then went out to run errands and when she returned about 6:20 p.m., he was not home. When she had not heard from him by 9 p.m., she decided to make a missing person report. As she was getting into her car, she heard a commotion down the street. When she drove toward it, a police officer told her that someone had been shot and killed. Contreras then drove to the station and filed the report.

She said that around 11:30 p.m., Tobias’s friend, Joshua, who lived in Arcadia, telephoned and said Tobias was with him and apologized for not reminding Tobias to call home. At the time, Tobias had a cell phone that was inoperative except to listen to music. Contreras said she also spoke to Joshua’s mother, who said she would drop Tobias off within the hour. And she spoke to Tobias, who apologized. She said that when he got home, she pointed to her phone to emphasize the time, and the readout was 12:42 a.m.

She also said that when she was called to the police station after Tobias was brought there from school, an officer showed her a still photo from the video and said, “This is your son.” She said it wasn’t because the person in the photo was taller and “thicker” than Tobias, and he didn’t have a birth mark on the left side of his forehead as Tobias did. She also said the person had different clothes than Tobias had.

Contreras also said she knew Tobias was known as Casper and that it was a gang name, but denied knowing that he was connected to the M.S. gang.

Jones, an expert in audio and video enhancement, testified that the video cameras were mounted about 16 feet above the ground and that camera angles affected how objects and people appear. A video taken from an elevated position would distort the appearance of a subject below, he said.

The prosecution presented a video made at the police station on August 20 during which Contreras said, “I know my son to be affiliated somehow with M.S. in the past. When asked how she knew, she said Tobias told her and because he “posted…all this stupid stuff on Facebook.”

On May 10, 2013, Campos adjudicated Tobias as delinquent. He sentenced him to 25 years in the Department of Juvenile Justice.

On February 11, 2015, the adjudication was set aside by the California Court of Appeal for the Second District. The court ruled that Tobias’s statement “Could I have an attorney” was unequivocally a request for a lawyer, and that the continuation of the interrogation was improper. “We conclude that…once he made this request, all questioning should have stopped.”

The appeals court noted that Campos had said that the video evidence standing alone would not be sufficient to sustain the juvenile petition, but that based on “the totality of the evidence” he was “hard-pressed to a different conclusion.” Therefore, the appeals court reasoned, the confession was “an essential factor” in the finding of delinquency and because it was being suppressed, the verdict was set aside.

On June 11, 2015, the case was dismissed and Tobias was released.

Subsequently, Tobias filed a federal lawsuit seeking damages from the city of Los Angeles. Tobias’s lawyer, David Owens, obtained more than 300 pages of documents from police. The documents included reports showing that the day after Tobias’s confession, on August 21, 2012, police arrested Eric Martinez in a burgundy car that was registered to an address that was a known location of M.S. gang members. Martinez was 20 years old, 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed 260 pounds. He was wearing a white shirt and was arrested after people called police saying he was among a group of men yelling “M.S.” and brandishing a handgun.

Police confiscated the gun. Firearms analysis linked the gun to the shell casings found at the scene of the shooting of Castaneda, Barragan, and Villanueva. Although the bench notes of the analysis showed that the examination of the weapon and the casings was completed in December 2012, the official report of the findings was dated May 7, 2012—the first day of Tobias’s adjudication hearing. That report was among the documents that were not disclosed to Tobias’s lawyer.

Martinez was prosecuted only for illegal possession of a firearm.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/7/2020
Last Updated: 5/7/2020
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder
Reported Crime Date:2012
Convicted:2013
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:25 years
Race/Ethnicity:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:13
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No