On February 5, 1998, 34-year-old Arturo Cortez was driving his car with his wife and two sons when undercover Los Angeles police detectives attempted to pull him over. Cortez thought he was being carjacked and tossed a set of keys out of the window and sped off. He stopped at a dead end minutes later and was arrested.
Detectives found the keys that were tossed out of the car and drove Cortez and his family back to their apartment on Compton Street in Los Angeles. The keys opened their apartment which was searched, but nothing illegal was found.
In Cortez’s pants pocket, detectives found another set of keys that they used to open an apartment located at the rear of Cortez’s apartment. Inside, detectives found plastic buckets containing about two pounds of marijuana. Keys on the key ring were used to open two lockboxes which contained about four pounds of cocaine. Another lockbox contained a handgun.
Cortez was charged with possession of the drugs and weapon. Cortez said he knew nothing about the drugs or the gun and that the apartment had just been rented days earlier to a man named Lucio Morales.
Within hours of Cortez’s arrest, Morales came to the police station and told Detective Donald Walthers, one of the officers who arrested Cortez, that the narcotics and gun were his and that Cortez knew nothing about them. Walthers dismissed Morales’ account as a lie because Morales’ description of what was recovered from the apartment was slightly different than what was found.
Morales then contacted Cortez’s attorney and claimed sole ownership of the drugs and gun. As the case neared trial, Morales and the attorney met five times to discuss Morales’ testimony. But before the trial began, Morales was arrested in Arizona on charges of importing 71 pounds of marijuana. While he was in jail there, Morales wrote a letter to Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Linda Lefkowitz, who was assigned to Cortez’s case.
The letter, signed under penalty of perjury, said the drugs were his and that he left his keys with Cortez because the apartment needed some repairs. The judge gave the letter to Cortez’s attorney, who had it typed up and sent to Morales, who signed it and had it notarized, then sent it back. Morales wrote other letters to Cortez’s attorney prior to the trial and explained that he had entered into a plea agreement with the prosecution in which he was going to plead guilty and receive probation.
In August 1998, Cortez’s lawyer asked for a postponement in Cortez’s trial so he could make arrangements to have Morales testify at the Los Angeles trial once his case was finished in Arizona. However, the prosecutor in Cortez’s case then notified prosecutors in Arizona that Morales was going to come to Los Angeles and admit possession of cocaine and marijuana. As a result, the judge in Arizona rejected the probation proposed in the plea agreement and instead sentenced Morales to 30 months in prison.
When Cortez went on trial in October 1998, Morales was incarcerated in Arizona. Cortez’s lawyer sought to introduce Morales’ letters and statements, but the judge refused to allow the evidence. The judge noted that the lawyer failed to go through proper legal channels to have Morales transported from his Arizona prison to testify at Cortez’s trial.
Detective Walthers testified that after getting a tip that drugs were being sold out of a rear apartment on Compton Avenue, he and his partner, Detective Daewon Kim, set up surveillance. Walthers said that at one point, a man drove up in a White Taurus and knocked on the front apartment door. He said that Cortez opened the door, spoke briefly with the man and that their hands met before the man drove off. Walthers said they tried to follow the Taurus, but lost it in traffic, so they returned to resume surveillance. That’s when Walthers said they saw Cortez leave his apartment and go to the rear apartment with a lockbox. Cortez unlocked the rear apartment and took the lockbox inside. He then returned to his apartment and brought a white bucket with a lid to the rear apartment before returning to his apartment where he soon left with his wife and son.
Walthers and Kim followed the car to Hooper Elementary School where Cortez got out of the car and chatted with another man while Cortez’s wife went inside and came out with their other son. Cortez got back in the car with his wife and two sons and headed to a nearby shopping mall. Enroute, Walthers said he decided to pull over the car because he thought the boys were “wrestling around” and so must not have been wearing seatbelts. When Cortez stopped to allow pedestrians to cross the street, Walthers approached the car, but Cortez sped off, tossing a set of keys out of the car.
When Cortez was stopped because he drove into a dead end, Walthers said they searched the car and found three cell phones, a memo pad and a calendar book. The pad and calendar had names and dollar amounts next to them. Cortez was carrying $317 in cash and his wife had $683 in cash.
The detectives and Cortez returned to his apartment. The keys that were thrown out of the car opened Cortez’s apartment. Nothing illegal was found there. Walthers said they had found another set of keys in Cortez’s pants pocket and those keys opened the rear apartment, where they found the narcotics and the gun.
Detective Kim was called as witness. Unlike Walthers, he testified that he didn’t see Cortez toss any keys out of the car and that Cortez didn’t have anything in his hands when the detectives saw him go to the rear apartment earlier in the afternoon. Before Kim could complete his testimony, the trial was recessed for the weekend. When Kim returned to the witness stand the following Monday, he changed his testimony and said that now he did recall that Cortez had a lockbox in his hands and he also now remembered seeing Cortez throw keys out of the car.
The defense presented evidence that Cortez’s fingerprints were not found on any of the lockboxes or buckets recovered from the rear apartment.
Cesar Alonso testified for the defense that on the morning that the detectives said they set up surveillance, Lucio Morales paged him and asked him to take Morales and some items to the apartment. Alonso said he picked up Morales along with two lockboxes, some clothes, a small black box and some buckets with lids, and that the two of them carried the boxes and buckets into the apartment. He said he watched as Morales opened the boxes and saw there was “white stuff in baggies.” The buckets contained “brown little packages that smelled like marijuana” and the black box contained a pistol, Alonso testified.
Cortez’s mother testified that she ran a market in the neighborhood and posted a "for rent" notice for the rear apartment. She said she rented it to Morales during the last week of January for $400 a month.
Cortez’s wife testified that on the day of the arrest, Morales knocked on the front door and gave Cortez a set of keys. She said that a friend also stopped by the house because he was helping Cortez repair the rear unit. The friend, Dwayne Battles, who drove a white Taurus, came by to get money from Cortez to purchase supplies for repairs to the rear apartment. Cortez’s wife said that she and Cortez and their son then left and stopped at several places, one of which was a check cashing store where she cashed a welfare check for $683 (the amount she had in her pocket when police stopped the car). She testified that they had borrowed a car because their car was not working and that the cell phones, memo pad and calendar were not theirs. A handwriting analyst testified that the writing on the pad and calendar was not Cortez’s.
Cortez’s wife also testified that they picked up their son from school and that the two children were belted into the back seat. As they were stopped to allow some pedestrians to cross the street, she said a man suddenly appeared at the driver's side of the car pointing a gun, screaming obscenities at them and ordering them out of the car. She said the man was in plainclothes and she thought they were being carjacked. She testified that Cortez panicked and attempted to get away.
Cortez’s wife—as well as Alonso and Cortez’s mother—all testified that there was a tall aluminum fence on the side of the duplex that would have obstructed the view of the detectives during their surveillance.
Cortez also testified in his own defense. He said that Dwayne Battles, the maintenance man, came by and that he gave Battles $100—$50 of which was for cleaning up the front lot and the rest was to purchase materials needed to fix the bathroom in the rear unit. He said he and his wife then left, cashed her check and came home. During that time, he said Morales came and dropped off the keys to the rear unit, so that he could give them to Battles so Battles could get in to fix the bathroom.
The jury deliberated for two days and asked that the testimony of the detectives be read back to them. On October 15, 1998, the jury convicted Cortez of possessing cocaine and marijuana and acquitted him of possessing the gun. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
After his conviction was upheld on appeal, Cortez filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In March 2003, a federal judge granted the petition and ordered a new trial. The prosecution appealed and the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the decision. The Court of Appeals held that Cortez’s trial lawyer should have planned for the possibility that Morales would be in jail and prepared a subpoena to get him transported to Los Angeles by prison authorities.
“Although not necessarily weak, the case against (Cortez) was hardly overwhelming,” the appeals court said. “(T)he prosecution's case was largely based on circumstantial evidence introduced through the not entirely consistent observations of the two police officers.”
On May 23, 2003, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office dismissed the charges and Cortez was released.
Cortez filed a claim for compensation with the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, but the claim was denied.
– Maurice Possley