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Arturo Jimenez

Other Los Angeles County, California exonerations with official misconduct
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Shortly after 2 a.m. on September 18, 1994, 14-year-old Hugo Colmenarez was fatally shot at a gas station at 22nd Street and Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles, California. Colmenarez was a member of the Reseda street gang and was shot during a confrontation with members of the Harpys street gang.

Colmenarez was with four friends, 20-year-old Jose Montes, 20-year-old Gabriel Casas, and Mayra Martinez and Llamily Sujey Chavez, who were both 15. They had spent the night partying and as they were driving home, Casas’s pager went off. Montes, who was driving a Pontiac Firebird, pulled off the freeway at Vermont Avenue and stopped at a gas station. Casas, who was in the back seat, got out and walked to a pay phone at the corner. Colmenarez, who was in the front passenger seat, got out and headed toward the bathrooms.

As Casas walked back to the car, he saw that Colmenarez was yelling their gang name. Two Hispanic males were telling him that they were Harpys and that this was their territory. Within minutes, as many as 15 to 20 Harpys had arrived and gathered around the passenger side of the Firebird, saying that they didn’t belong there. By that time, Martinez, who was in the back seat, was the only person remaining in the car.

Three shots were fired and Colmenarez fell to the ground, mortally wounded.

Los Angeles police officer Dominick Fuentes and his partner were a few blocks away when they heard the gunshots. They turned onto Vermont Avenue and headed toward the gas station. They saw a blue Chevrolet Blazer in front of them make a sudden U-turn. Fuentes also saw a maroon Monte Carlo speeding away. Because Fuentes recognized the driver of the Blazer, 18-year-old Arturo Jimenez, from a traffic stop a week earlier, the officers pursued and curbed the Monte Carlo, which was taken to the gas station. The driver, David Hernandez, was arrested.

Meanwhile, Montes, Casas, Martinez and Chavez went to the police station. Casas identified Hernandez as someone who had gotten out of the Monte Carlo and was standing near the gunman when the shots were fired.

Two days later, on September 20, Montes and Martinez were shown a photographic lineup that included Jimenez’s photograph. Detectives reported that Martinez—the only one of the four who had remained in the Firebird—identified Jimenez as the gunman. Montes said that Jimenez “most looks like” the gunman, but that was because the others in the array didn’t look anything like the gunman. Montes said Jimenez looked heavier than the gunman. The gunman also had a darker complexion, acne, and oily skin. The following day, Casas was shown the same photo lineup and did not identify anyone.

Chavez was standing next to Colmenarez when he was shot. She said that two gang members were arguing with Colmenarez when one ripped the chain from his neck. Then a third man stepped up and fired the shots. Chavez said the first two men jumped into the Blazer that had arrived.

Chavez was interviewed a second time the following day. She provided a description of the gunman’s clothing—which no other witness had done—and said she could identify the gunman if she saw him again. She also said the gunman may have gotten into the Blazer, but she wasn’t sure.

On September 20, 1994, the detectives asked the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office to charge Hernandez. However, charges were not approved because there was no evidence that he was anything beyond a bystander.

On September 26, police again interviewed Chavez. This interview was conducted by telephone because Chavez’s mother had flown her to Miami for her safety. Chavez re-iterated that she could identify the shooter if she saw him again. She also said that the driver of the Blazer was not the gunman and said that a man who jumped into the back seat of the Blazer was not the gunman. Chavez said the driver of the Blazer yelled to “take him [Colmenarez] to the hospital.”

On October 7, detectives flew to Miami and showed Chavez several photographic lineups that included Jimenez. She did not identify Jimenez as the gunman.

Detectives obtained a search warrant for Jimenez’s home. In the warrant, Detective Patricia Guerra gave a sworn statement quoting Officer Fuentes as saying he saw Jimenez driving the Blazer. The affidavit did not mention that Chavez said the driver of the Blazer was not the gunman. Nothing was found during the search to connect Jimenez to the crime.

On November 17, 1994, the police presented the case against Jimenez to the district attorney’s office. The prosecutors approved the filing of a charge of first-degree murder. The detectives’ typed reports contained the statements of all the witnesses except for Chavez, whose statements were recorded only in handwritten notes. When the prosecution turned over the case file, also known as the murder book, the notes of the interviews with Chavez were in the very last portion.

On January 24, 1995, Jimenez was represented at a preliminary hearing by Lenard Sampson, who was actually ineligible to practice law. His license had been suspended on December 5, 1994. After Jimenez was ordered to stand trial, Sampson referred the case to James Rosenberg, who had a disciplinary action pending with the California State Bar and would ultimately be disbarred in 2011.

On April 25, 1994, Jimenez went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The case depended largely on the testimony of Martinez. She said she saw one of the Harpys pull a gun from his waistband and fire at Colmenarez, but the gun misfired. Then, a second man pulled out a gun and fired three times, she said.

Martinez identified the gunman as Jimenez. She said that when she first saw the photo array, she was 90 percent sure he was the gunman. She said she knew she had selected the right person when she saw him in court. Martinez testified that when the shots were fired, Casas jumped into the back seat and covered her. When she looked up, she saw people running toward vehicles. One was a Buick Regal that was either black or blue and the other was a Blazer, she said. When the prosecutor showed Martinez her initial statement to police describing a Monte Carlo instead of Regal, she said it was a Monte Carlo.

Two detectives, Guerra and Lou Leiker, testified that when Martinez was shown the photographic lineup, she was unequivocal that Jimenez was the gunman. Guerra admitted during the cross-examination that she was not 100 percent sure that Jimenez was the person “we were looking for in this investigation.”

None of the others who were with Martinez that night identified Jimenez as the gunman, although Casas testified that, after considerable prodding by Detective Leiker, he told the detective that Jimenez had some characteristics of someone who was at the gas station that night. But Casas also testified, “I never seen nobody get out of the Blazer.”

Detective Sal LaBarbera testified that Casas said in an interview right after the shooting that the gunman got into the passenger side of the Blazer.

Jimenez testified that he was sitting in the Blazer with his brother, Pedro Aceves, across from a tavern drinking and smoking marijuana when the gunshots were fired just a couple of blocks away. Jimenez, who was a member of the Harpys gang, said he drove toward the shots fearing that a friend or family member was involved. He said that they passed the gas station and drove to the second entrance, passing between the two sets of gas pumps. He said he saw a young woman who was holding Colmenarez on the ground. As he told her to take the victim to the hospital, two Harpys members jumped into the back seat of the Blazer and told him to get out of there.

Jimenez said that when he left the station, he saw a police car and made a U-turn. They returned to the bar and everyone got out. Aceves testified similarly, saying he rode in the passenger seat as Jimenez drove. He said there was no plan to pick anyone up. “They just jumped in the back and told us: ‘Step on it. Just leave.’”

Rafael Uribe testified that he was in the bar when he heard the gunshots and went outside to see the Blazer driving off. He said the shots were fired before the Blazer left.

The prosecution then called Officer Fuentes, who testified that Aceves was the driver of the Blazer and Jimenez was the passenger, even though he reported the night of the shooting that he recognized Jimenez as the driver of the Blazer. The defense did not cross examine Officer Fuentes about the fact that he had previously identified Jimenez as the driver of the Blazer in the official investigative reports. The jury never learned about this discrepancy.

The jury also never learned of Chavez’s statements to police exculpating the Blazer driver because Jimenez’s lawyer apparently only reviewed the typed statements, which did not contain Chavez’s statements. Her statements were included only in the handwritten notes of the detectives.

On May 4, 1995, the jury convicted Jimenez of first-degree murder.

Three weeks later, 14-year-old Sandra Garcia was walking to high school with Chavez, whom she knew only as Sujey. As they walked, Garcia mentioned that their neighbor’s son was going to prison even though his mother said he was innocent. Chavez asked if it was the “guy in the Blazer.” When Garcia said it was, Chavez said, “His mother is right. He is innocent.” Chavez explained that she had been at the gas station and knew that the driver of the Blazer was not the gunman.

After school, Garcia notified Jimenez’s family and told them of the conversation. However, Chavez, while repeating that the driver of the Blazer was innocent, said she could not help because her gang said that “someone has to pay” for the murder.

Jimenez’s lawyer, Rosenberg, then sent an investigator to meet with Chavez, who denied telling Garcia that she knew the driver was innocent. Now, she claimed that other members of the gang told her that Jimenez was not the gunman. “I just know because of them,” she said.

Rosenberg then filed a motion for a new trial based on “newly discovered evidence.” However, he did not refer to any of Chavez’s pretrial statements. In fact, he ultimately argued that Chavez had nothing to add regarding the identity of the gunman, even though the detective notes said she could identify the gunman if she saw him again and that the driver of the Blazer was not the gunman.

During arguments on whether to hold a hearing on the motion, the prosecutor said that “at no time” did Chavez make a prior statement that matched the statement she had made to Garcia. This was not true as the handwritten police notes showed, but the defense attorney failed to correct it. The judge tried to determine what Chavez had previously said to police and noted that he didn’t have any record other than what the prosecution had argued. In response, the prosecutor said that “as an officer of the court,” all of Chavez’s statements “were contained in the murder book that was presented” to the defense. However, the prosecutor failed to inform the judge that those notes corroborated Jimenez’s testimony that he drove the Blazer and was not the gunman.

Ultimately, a hearing was held on July 7, 1995. Chavez testified only that others had told her that Jimenez was innocent. Garcia, who was outside the courtroom, was not called to testify about her initial conversation when Chavez said she knew the driver of the Blazer was innocent because she was present at the time of the shooting. Rosenberg never asked Chavez about any of her pretrial statements to the police that exculpated Jimenez. The prosecutor cross-examined Chavez about each of her statements to the police, but also did not ask Chavez about those statements that specifically exculpated Jimenez.

The motion for a new trial was denied. Jimenez was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

The California Court of Appeal upheld the conviction in 1996. His appellate lawyer, who was retained by Jimenez’s family, did not raise the issue of whether Jimenez’s trial lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense. Jimenez’s family then paid a different lawyer, Bruce Bridgman, $15,000 to file a petition for review and a writ of habeas corpus. The petition for review was filed three weeks later and was denied by the California Supreme Court in November 1996. In May 1997, Bridgman informed the family that he found no “arguably meritorious” issues to raise in a writ of habeas corpus.

Acting without a lawyer, Jimenez filed several petitions for habeas corpus in state and federal court, but none was successful.

In 2014, attorney Ellen Eggers agreed to investigate Jimenez’s claims of innocence without charge. Her review of the file revealed the detective notes of Chavez’s statements right after the shooting. The files also contained the original reports from Fuentes about recognizing Jimenez as the driver of the Blazer even though he testified at the trial that Aceves rather than Jimenez was the driver.

Eggers also discovered the identity of the gunman—Oscar Sanchez, who was a Harpys street gang member who had died in 2008. At the time of the crime, Sanchez was dating Diana Valtierra. In 2019, Valtierra provided a statement that Sanchez confessed to shooting Colmenarez and that another Harpys gang member had been falsely convicted of the crime. At the time, Sanchez was driving a blue Buick Regal—the car that Martinez had mentioned during her testimony at the trial.

In 2018, while working in a volunteer program in the new Folsom Prison, Eggers met Carlos Gallardo, also a one-time member of the Harpys. Gallardo told Eggers that sometime after Jimenez’s conviction, Sanchez admitted to Gallardo that Jimenez was “doing my time.”

Moreover, Armando Aceves—who also was Jimenez’s brother—admitted that he ripped the gold chain from Colmenarez’s neck, and that Sanchez came up from behind, told him to get out of the way, and opened fire. Aceves said that when Jimenez arrived in the Blazer, he and another Harpy member, Ricardo Ñol, jumped into the back seat. Ñol confirmed that he and Aceves jumped into the Blazer, which arrived after the shooting.

Mayra Martinez also gave a statement saying that her identification of Jimenez at the police station was the result of police pressure. She said that during the photo lineup she was unable to identify the gunman. However, a detective said she could not leave the station until she identified someone. She said she believed police had other evidence of Jimenez’s guilt and when she saw Jimenez in court, she believed her identification was correct.

In 2019, law firm of Morrison and Foerster agreed to partner with Eggers. Shortly thereafter, the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) joined the legal team. In January 2020, a petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed on behalf of Jimenez. The law firm of Morrison and Foerster and NCIP lawyer Paige Kaneb were appointed to represent Jimenez.

On April 10, 2020, Jimenez was released on parole more than 25 years after his arrest. On August 12, Superior Court Judge Ronald Coen vacated Jimenez’s conviction and dismissed the case after the prosecution agreed that Jimenez had received an inadequate legal defense.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/20/2020
Last Updated: 8/20/2020
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1994
Convicted:1995
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:30 to life
Race/Ethnicity:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No