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Ruben Martinez Jr.

Other California Cases with Mistaken Witness Identifications
Ruben Martinez Jr., and his wife, Maria.
Between December 29, 2005 and May 31, 2007, the Earl Scheib auto-painting and body-repair shop in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles was robbed five times at gunpoint. During the first robbery, manager Juan Rodriguez was able to get a good look at the robber’s face and would recall that he had a mustache and a gap in his teeth.

During the next robbery, exactly one year later, on December 29, 2006, a man entered the business wearing a mask. Rodriguez said he was able to recognize the man because the holes in the mask allowed him to see the robber’s mouth and eyes. He said, “It’s you again.” The robber told him to shut up and give him the money from the safe and from Rodriguez’s wallet. Three months later, the business was robbed again by a man wearing a mask, taking money from Rodriguez, three employees, a customer, and a painter who was working at the auto shop. Rodriguez said he recognized the robber by his voice, mustache, and teeth.

The store had no security cameras, and Rodriguez quit shortly after the third robbery. The masked robber returned on May 18, robbing the new manager, Edward Mendez, and several employees. He came back on May 31, this time using only a red rag to conceal his face, and again robbed Mendez.

Rodriguez had gotten a good look at the robber, and the mask or masks that the robber used had sufficient gaps that allowed several of the victims and Rodriguez to assist police in drawing a composite sketch.

It’s not clear from court records how police first focused on Ruben Martinez Jr. as a suspect. But he had the same gap-toothed smile as the robber, and in a series of live and photographic lineups, at least three of the victims, including Mendez and Rodriguez, said that Martinez was the robber. He was arrested on July 24, 2007 and charged with nine counts of second-degree armed robbery.

Martinez went to trial on all nine counts in Los Angeles County Superior Court on November 19, 2007. While some of the victims identified him as the robber, two of the victims didn’t. The trial ended in a hung jury, with nine jurors voting to convict.

His retrial began on April 8, 2008. Five witnesses testified that Martinez was the man who robbed them, but the witnesses who had failed to identify Martinez at the first trial didn’t testify for either the state or the defense. Martinez had alibis for all five days that the robberies were committed, although they were strongest for the first two events. For the 2005 robbery, his brother-in-law said he had picked Martinez up from a day-labor job late in the afternoon. For the 2006 robbery, Martinez had paperwork showing he was working in Studio City. His wife said he was with her during the other three days that the body shop was robbed.

At the retrial, an issue involving Martinez’s grooming came up. While in custody, he had grown longer hair and now had a mustache. At a pretrial hearing on April 7, 2008, Martinez’s attorney noted that he had asked for a court order to allow Martinez to shave his face prior to the start of the trial, but that had not happened.

During the trial, Martinez’s wife, Maria, took the stand. She was asked about her husband’s hair, and said “this is the first time I have seen it really long.” The defense attorney tried to ask her whether she knew why this was so, and the prosecution objected. In a sidebar conference, the two sides argued about the efforts Martinez had taken to get a shave and a haircut. The defense said he had been unsuccessful in his attempt, and that Martinez didn’t want the jury thinking he had altered his appearance. The prosecution said Martinez had refused an opportunity to clean himself up by insisting that a barber shave him. The judge said neither party could present evidence about Martinez’s hair while he was in custody.

During closing arguments, the prosecutor told jurors that the composite sketch tracked how Martinez had looked at the time of the robberies, without the facial hair “he has grown for this proceeding.” The defense raised no objection.

Martinez was convicted on April 11, 2008 and later sentenced to 40 years and 8 months in prison. California’s Second District Court of Appeal affirmed his conviction in 2009, and the California Supreme Court denied review of his case. In 2011, Martinez filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. He claimed that his rights to a fair trial were violated because the judge didn’t allow him to present evidence that his failure to shave was the jail’s fault, not his. Instead, the judge allowed the prosecutor to argue and the jury to infer consciousness of guilt from his altered appearance. In addition, he claimed that his appellate attorney, Lawrence Young, had provided ineffective assistance of counsel because he had failed to include the prosecutor’s remarks or the lack of a response by the trial attorney in his appeal. During the appeal process, Young was facing disciplinary action from the California State Bar, which ultimately led to three years of probationary status. He was disbarred in 2013.

His petition was rejected. The court wrote: “The evidence on the collateral issue of the length of Petitioner’s hair in custody was conflicting. Moreover, if the court had permitted testimony on this issue, it would not have been all that helpful to Petitioner’s alibi defense for the jury to hear that it was he who, given the opportunity to do so, refused to get his hair cut for the trial. In fact, such testimony might actually have led the jury to infer that Petitioner was attempting to change his appearance for trial.” The court also dismissed Martinez’s claims of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, noting the strengths of the witness identifications.

Martinez remained in prison, but he had a powerful ally. At one time, Maria Martinez was a secretary in the homicide unit of the Los Angeles Police Department, and she was particularly close to a former detective named Catherine Wills. Wills believed Maria Martinez’s account of her husband’s innocence. She worked with Maria Martinez to review the evidence in the case, eventually creating a thick binder that they presented to the Conviction Review Unit created by Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.

According to the Associated Press, Wills had been trying for years – even before Lacey’s election in 2012 – to get Lacey interested in reviewing Martinez’s case. “She grabbed me by the hand and had a strong hold and she said there is an innocent man in prison,” Lacey said of her first meeting with Wills. “You know, a lot of people say those things to you as DA … But she was unwavering. She didn't say it one time she said it multiple times.”

The CRU’s review focused on the first two robberies, which were most clearly done by the same person. They tracked down witnesses, found employment records and paystubs that bolstered Martinez’s alibi presented at trial and showed Martinez could not have committed those crimes.

On November 1, 2019, the DA’s office asked the court to release Martinez on his own recognizance, pending the resolution of his case. He was released from prison on November 5. A week later, on November 12, 2019, after a hearing before Judge William Ryan of Los Angeles County Superior Court, Martinez’s conviction was vacated and he was declared factually innocent.

Speaking to reporters, Martinez noted that he had turned down a plea deal that would have led to a sentence of two-and-a-half years. “I would have been standing for a lie,” Martinez said. “If it happened again, I would stand up for the truth.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 11/18/2019
Last Updated: 11/18/2019
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2007
Convicted:2008
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:40 years and 8 months
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No