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Ignacio Ixta, Jr.

Other Ventura County, California exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Ignacio_Ixta.jpeg
On April 12, 2021, the Ventura County District Attorney’s office agreed to vacate the 2010 murder conviction of Ignacio Ixta Jr. because evidence that called into question the credibility of the state’s key witness had never been disclosed to the defense.

Ixta, who had steadfastly maintained his innocence since the day he was arrested in 2009 at age 21, was released from prison into the embrace of his family.

"It feels good out here," Ixta said upon his release. "I just want to thank everybody who came out… to support the fight for justice. I appreciate every single one of them, and of course, I want to thank my family for their support all this time…I just hope to try to pay it forward and try to help somebody else out however I can."

Ixta had been convicted of charges arising from a shooting that occurred at about 7:40 p.m. on December 3, 2009 in Oxnard, California. Miguel “Michael” Cortez, 20, was shot in the back while outside the converted garage where he lived with his girlfriend in the 3300 block of Merced Place.

There were essentially three main prosecution witnesses and all told a different story at Ixta’s trial in Ventura County Superior Court. The trial began on December 2, 2010, just about a year after Ixta’s arrest on Christmas Eve 2009. He was charged with attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and shooting at an inhabited building.

Deputy Ventura County District Attorney Joann Roth, in her opening statement, said the case was about disrespect—that Cortez was not respectful to Ixta, who she said was an associate of the Colonia Chiques gang. Cortez had formerly been a member of a tagging crew (sometimes known as “graffiti vandals”) called Hardest Around, but had left the gang, she said.

Cortez, she said, had never been so much as on probation. “No weapons, drugs, violence, gangs, anything like that,” Roth said. “Yet, he readily admitted, to the police, that when he was 16 years old, he became a member of the [Hardest Around] tagging crew …Mr. Cortez will tell you, he got older. And more responsible, got a job. He left the tagger lifestyle, but he also forgot to send a postcard, or give notice to the over 2,000 Colonia Chiques gang members, that he was no longer tagging.”

Brenda Cervantes testified that on the day of the shooting, Cortez, who was her boyfriend, and her nephew, 11-year-old Rafael Alvarado, picked her up at work. As they neared their home, Alvarado said to Cortez, “There’s your friend, Alonzo,” referring to a man walking with a young boy. Alonzo lived across the street at 3301 Merced Place.

Cervantes testified that after they parked and got out, she began to walk to their home while Cortez approached the man. She said she heard an argument between Cortez and the man, who turned out not to be “Alonzo.” The men were “screaming,” she said.

She said she got a “complete look” at the man. She said the man wore black clothing, had dark eyebrows, and a mustache. She said she and her nephew went into the house and Cortez joined them. She said Cortez told her the man he talked to was from the Colonia Chiques gang. She said that she went out to lock the gate and saw four other men at the front door of a house across the street. One of them, she said, was the person she had thought was “Alonzo.”

Cervantes said that about a half hour later, Rafael’s father, Ramon Alvarado, called to Cortez from the front yard that Cortez’s friends were asking for him. Cortez went out through an open window, she said. Moments later, she heard a gunshot.

Cervantes said several times that she did not see the shooting or anyone running away. But when the prosecutor stood behind Ixta and asked who he was, Cervantes replied, “That's the person that shot [Cortez].” Ixta’s defense attorney objected and moved to strike the statement for lack of foundation. The trial court overruled the objection. Immediately after the court overruled the objection, Cervantes said, “He's the person that I saw standing in front of my house.”

Cortez was shot once in the back. The bullet passed through his body and lodged in the house. He was taken to a hospital where, a day and a half later, Cervantes said she was present when police arrived.

She said officers showed several photo lineups to Cortez. She said she did not hear if Cortez said anything and could not see what they showed him—testimony that would be contradicted by a detective who was there. She said that after the officers finished with Cortez, they escorted her into the hallway and showed her photo arrays. She said she identified #5—Ixta—in one array, but admitted that at that time she told the officer she could not be 100 percent certain because she did not get a good look at his face. Now, however, she said she was 100 percent sure Ixta shot Cortez. She blamed her earlier uncertainty to fear of retaliation because “they know where my family lives.” She said she and Cortez had been targeted by members of the Colonia gang members in the past.

Cortez testified that he realized as he walked toward the man on the street that night that he was not “Alonzo.” He said he thought the person he saw was Ixta and that Ixta was the man who shot him. He said he remembered that Ixta was wearing a Converse brand shirt with a white star. The star represented the Colonia gang, Cortez said.

Cortez said that he had formerly been a member of Hardest Around, which was a rival of the Colonia Chiques gang. However, he said he no longer was a member of Hardest Around—that he had given up that lifestyle.

Cortez said Ixta told him he was from Colonia. Cortez said he replied, “I don’t give an F where you’re from. Just don’t start things around here, you know.” Cortez said he then went to Alonzo’s house and asked for him. Cortez said he was told Alonzo had just left, but then he saw two men come out of a side door and one was Ixta. Cortez said he then went into the house. Not long after, Ramon Alvarez knocked on the window and said someone was looking for him. Cortez said he thought it was Alonzo.

When he got outside, he realized the man was not Alonzo. He said there were two men, one of whom was Ixta. The other man, who was wearing a Dallas Cowboys football team jacket, said, “Come here.” Cortez said he replied, “No, get out of here. If you guys want to get even, I’ll bring my friends. We’ll get even, you know, but not right here.”

Cortez said that Ixta was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed “one-forty something.” When Ixta’s defense lawyer noted that Ixta was 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed 170 pounds, Cortez said, “Maybe he was taller.”

Cortez said he turned around, saying, “I don’t want problems here. Just leave.” He said he heard a click and ran. He was then shot. Initially, he told police it was too dark to see who shot him. He said he didn’t want to cooperate because of the threat of retaliation. He said the only truthful statements he made to police at the time of the shooting was that they were members of the Colonia gang and one was wearing a Cowboys jacket. He said he decided to cooperate after he received his hospital bills and a detective told him that if he didn’t cooperate, victim services would not help him pay the bills.

Ramon Alvarez said a man approached him and asked for Cortez. He testified he thought it was one of Cortez’s friends and told Cortez. A second person was with the man, he said. Alvarez said that Cortez, said, “I don’t know who you are. What do you want? This is not my house, I don’t want trouble here.” Alvarez said the man “would only say, ‘Come out;’ that he wanted to talk to him.”

Cortez ignored him and was shot in the back, Alvarez said. He was unable to identify the gun, though he was eight to 10 feet away “because it was dark.” Alvarez did not identify anyone in the photo arrays or at the trial.

Oxnard police detective Alex Arnett testified that on the night of the shooting, he visited the house at 3301 Merced Place and saw Erik Ixta, who Arnett believed was an associate of the Colonia gang. He said that he included a photograph of Ignacio Ixta Jr.—Erik’s brother—in the photo arrays for that reason.

Arnett said that in the hospital room, he showed photo arrays to Cortez. “He looked at the photos. I asked him if he could identify anybody in the…photo lineup who looked familiar. He started moving his head up and down meaning yes in the affirmative. Then he started to point to a picture which is number five of the defendant, Ignacio Ixta,” Arnett said.

“But at that point he wasn’t verbally communicating to me. He was just physically moving his head up and down and pointing,” Arnett said. “So at that point, I wanted to get verbal confirmation from him, so I asked him, ‘Number five? Are you pointing to number five? Is he the one who shot you?”

Arnett said that Cervantes was in the hospital room at that time and that Cortez “started to motion over for Brenda Cervantes to come over to where he was in the bed. At that point, I asked Brenda to go ahead and step out of the room.” Arnett conceded that he had said “Number five” aloud.

Arnett said Cortez did not positively identify Ixta, saying only “I think so,” when asked if Ixta was the gunman.

Arnett said that when he showed the photo array to Cervantes out in the hall, she identified Ixta, who was still in the number five position.

Arnett also testified as an expert on gangs and said that he considered Erik Ixta to be a Colonia associate. An associate, Arnett said, is someone who hangs out with gang members, but was not a full-fledged member. An associate was “an apprentice, still learning the trade of being a gang member.” Arnett admitted that he had no evidence that Ignacio Ixta was trying to join the Colonia gang at the time of the shooting, that he had no tattoos, gang or otherwise, and had no gang nickname.

Arnett said that gang attire included Dallas Cowboys and Converse brand clothing and footwear because each has a five-pointed star. Arnett noted that police had searched the garage where Ixta and several others lived, and they recovered a pair of Dallas Cowboys gloves. Having a pair of those gloves was “consistent with someone who would associate with Colonia Chiques,” Arnett said. The defense noted that the Cowboys held preseason camps in Oxnard and many local families supported the team.

Ana Aguilera, who lived across the street, testified that she did not see Ixta at her house that afternoon or when she arrived home at 8 p.m. that night. Teresa Aguilera, Ana’s mother, testified that she didn’t know Ixta, but did know Ixta’s brother, Erik, who had arrived at the home with his parents that day from Arizona.

Ginger Martinez, Ixta’s girlfriend, testified that on December 1, 2009—two days before the shooting, she and Ixta learned that they were having a baby. She said Ixta was with her the entire day and evening of December 3, when the shooting occurred. She said he did not have a car and did not leave her. She also said that Ixta “doesn’t wear Converse.”

On December 14, 2010, the jury convicted Ixta of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and shooting at an inhabited dwelling. He was sentenced to 35 years to life in prison.

In June 2012, the Second District California Court of Appeal upheld Ixta’s conviction and rejected the defense argument that the gang expert testimony was prejudicial and should not have been allowed. The court did say that Brenda Cervantes’s identification of Ixta should have been stricken, but that the error was harmless and did not render the trial constitutionally unfair.

In September 2015, Dr. Natalie Cherot, an investigative journalist who had probed gang activities in Ventura County in the past, agreed to examine Ixta’s case. Ultimately, she began investigating the evidence and interviewed numerous people, including Juan Alvarez, who also lived at 3310 Merced Place. Alvarez recounted a shooting that took place on November 27, 2009—six days prior to the shooting of Cortez.

Alvarez said that Cortez was driving a gray Nissan Altima when a man in a white Dodge Charger fired a shot that pierced the trunk of the Nissan. In response, someone in the Nissan fired a gun at the Charger, wounding a passenger. Alvarez said that he saw the white Charger near Cortez’s home on the day of the shooting and that he tried to warn Cortez, but he was not home. Cortez, apparently fearing retaliation, hid the Altima and later sold it.

Asked why Cortez would falsely identify Ixta, Alvarez said that Cortez didn’t believe Ixta was a gang member so Ixta wouldn’t make any problems for Cortez.

Cherot also interviewed five others who lived on Merced Place. One said that a white Dodge Charger was seen in the neighborhood on the night Cortez was shot. The other said she heard Cortez say that there were “some guys we are going to have problems with.”

Cherot’s investigation began turn up evidence that Cortez was not a former gang member as portrayed by the prosecution at trial.

Meanwhile, Len Newcomb, a private investigator, was working for Ixta’s parents, Alma and Ignacio Sr., to uncover new evidence in the case. Andrew Wolf, a lawyer who had an office in the same suite as Newcomb, became interested in the case based on conversations that he overheard.

The family retained Wolf to file a petition for habeas corpus. A petition filed in the Superior Court based on what Wolf claimed was improper gang expert testimony was denied in 2018. Another habeas petition was then filed in the Second District California Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, Ignacio Ixta Sr. discovered several search warrants that were written by the Oxnard Police Department and signed by the Ventura County District Attorney’s office.

The warrants detailed activities of the Hardest Around tagging crew and how in 2007—two years after Cortez said he left the tagging crew—Cortez was the driver of a car from which shotgun blasts were fired into a house. The warrants said that in January 2008, Cortez, described as a “documented” member of the tagging crew, and other members of the crew were detained as suspects in a drive-by shooting. Police executed search warrants at their homes and seized eight firearms, including two illegal assault rifles, along with 1,000 rounds of ammunition and high capacity magazines. The warrants detailed three arrests of Cortez, although he was not charged.

Wolf amended the habeas petition pending in the appeals court to claim that the search warrants had never been disclosed to the Ixta’s trial defense attorneys. The warrants, the petition said, impeached Roth’s representation of Cortez and Cortez’s testimony that he was a law-abiding citizen with no current ties to any gang activity at that time.

The petition was denied in April 2019. Wolf then filed a habeas petition in the California Supreme Court. While that petition was pending, the Covid-19 pandemic caused a virtual shutdown of courts throughout California and the nation.

In March 2020, Wolf wrote a seven-page letter to Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten outlining the evidence that had been uncovered over the years. “I am writing directly to you because no one seems to be taking the prosecutorial misconduct seriously, and I thought you should be aware of the evidence which we have discovered,” Wolf said.

The letter detailed how prosecutor Roth, in opposing a pre-trial defense motion to bar the gang expert testimony, mischaracterized evidence. She said that the reason there was no evidence that Ixta had any contacts in 2009 with police in Oxnard was that he was in Chandler, Arizona, based on records she had obtained. Wolf noted that the records were from 2008, not 2009.

Wolf noted, “The misstated evidence regarding Arizona is magnified when one considers what the Court of Appeal said in upholding the use of the gang expert testimony under the law as it existed at the time: ‘Here, without gang evidence, the prosecution would be left with a shooting without motive or intent, and witnesses who initially gave an equivocal identification of the shooter.’”

Wolf said that based on the search warrants, Roth “knew or should have known that her recitation of ‘facts’ was completely contrary to the facts known to the Oxnard Police Department and to the Office of the District Attorney. Ms. Roth’s theory of the case was that since Mr. Cortez was a responsible member of society, the only possible explanation for the shooting was one incident of disrespect.” Wolf added that the warrants “make it abundantly clear that there were numerous more-plausible explanations for the shooting. Ms. Roth simply chose to ignore them because they were inconsistent with the theory which she elected to pursue.”

Totten referred the case to the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) for re-investigation.

On February 5, 2021, Deputy District Attorney Taylor Waters informed Wolf that the prosecution had concluded that Ixta was entitled to a new trial and that his convictions should be vacated. A hearing date was scheduled for April 12.

On March 24, 2021, in anticipation that the convictions would formally be vacated, criminal defense attorney Phil Dunn wrote a 10-page letter to Waters. It was a presentation “designed to encourage your office to conclude that Ignacio Ixta Jr. should not be further prosecuted, and that on April 12, 2021, the People should dismiss the matter outright.”

Dunn referred to information gathered by Cherot, Wolf, and Ixta's parents and cited the search warrants. The warrants, Dunn noted, changed the narrative of who Miguel Cortez really was—someone who was still involved in activities with the Hardest Around tagging crew. And at the time of his involvement, there were a series of retaliatory shootings that resulted in three deaths—two Hardest Around members, Jovany Cahuantzi and Luis Ruiz, as well as Ruiz’s mother.

Dunn also referred to an interview Detective Edward Baldwin recorded with Cortez after Cortez left the hospital. During this interview, Dunn noted, Cortez’s identification of Ixta finally began to “solidify” when the detective told Cortez that he was going to be stuck with a very large hospital bill. The detective manipulated a more positive identification of Ixta from Cortez, who had initially said it was too dark to see the gunman’s face.

The detective said that if Cortez did not cooperate, when the state victim’s compensation fund asked if they should help Cortez out, the police response would be: “Why, no, he’s not cooperating.”

The detective, who was laughing, said, “So it’s almost like you kinda brought it on.” The detective went on to say that the “first thing a defense attorney is gonna bring up is the fact that you were questionable on the first [identification procedure].” But the detective assured Cortez, “Yeah, we‘ll be able to explain it. ‘Hey, he was afraid for his family, he was afraid for his girlfriend.’”

By that time, Erik Nasarenko was the Ventura County District Attorney, having been appointed to the post in January 2021 when Totten retired.

On day of the April 12 hearing, when the defense was expecting the prosecution to agree to vacate the convictions, Waters announced that the prosecution also was agreeing to dismiss all of the charges as well.

In a statement, Nasarenko said the warrants “contained information that directly reflected upon the credibility of the key witness and, as such, were required by law” to be disclosed to the defense. He said there was no evidence that the trial prosecutor knew of the warrants. Nasarenko said that after concluding that Ixta was entitled to a new trial, the case was reviewed further to consider a possible retrial.

Nasarenko said that the prosecution had concluded that based “upon the current state of the evidence…we could not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at a second trial.”

In a proceeding that took just minutes, the convictions were vacated, the charges were dismissed and Ixta was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/6/2021
Last Updated: 5/6/2021
State:California
County:Ventura
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Other Violent Felony
Reported Crime Date:2009
Convicted:2010
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:35 years to life
Race/Ethnicity:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No