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Juan Bautista

Other California Exonerations with Mistaken Witness Identification
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Just after midnight on May 9, 2009, a fight broke out between two young men outside a party at an apartment complex in Lodi, California.

Witnesses would later tell police that the two men represented rival gangs in the city. One was a Sureño; the other, Michael Natera, a Norteño. The two men first fought only with their hands, and their fight was broken up. The Sureño member left and returned a short time later with a gun. He fired several shots at a group of young men in the apartment garage. Anthony Pazo, who was 17 years old and the son of the chaplain for the Lodi Police Department, was hit in the leg and taken to the hospital.

Police interviewed seven witnesses. They all agreed the shooter was a Hispanic male in his late teens, but they gave different descriptions of his height and weight. Interviewed at the hospital, Pazo said the shooter was about 5 foot 7 inches and medium build. He also said that he would not be able to identify the shooter if he saw him again.

Pazo’s friend, Chris Humphreys, who was the party’s host, said the shooter was about 6 feet tall and weighed between 200 and 250 pounds. Natera, who had fought with the shooter, said he had had several run-ins with the man over the previous few years, but he would not provide a name or nickname for the man.

There had been another party at the complex that night, at the home of Noheli Garcia, and the attendees included 19-year-old Juan Bautista and his brother, 17-year-old Adrian Bautista. Juan arrived later than his brother and first stopped at a nearby store to get a drink. A friend there told him about the shots. Juan ran out of the store. When he returned to the complex later that night, everyone was gone, and he stayed with some friends in Stockton, about 20 miles away.

On the night of May 9, Juan returned to the complex to keep looking for his brother. He wanted to talk with Garcia, but she wasn’t home, so he waited on a bench for her to return. About 10:30 p.m., a Lodi police officer asked Bautista what he was doing there and warned him that he would be arrested if he didn’t leave.

Bautista left and walked to a nearby school, then returned a short while later. The police also returned to investigate a report of a suspicious vehicle that might have been related to the shooting. The officer recognized Bautista from the earlier interaction and arrested him for trespassing. He was held overnight and released in the morning on May 10, 2009.

Along with the call about the suspicious vehicle. Lodi police had received other calls about suspicious people and vehicles possibly related to the shooting. Bautista had been arrested while officers were responding to a suspicious vehicle, but the nature of that arrest was inaccurately relayed to the detective investigating the shooting. He would write in his report on May 19, 2009: “I learned that Officer Van Noord had completed a case in which he had arrested a subject for trespassing in the same complex in which this shooting occurred. The caller reporting the suspicious male said it was the same male who was responsible for this shooting.”

The detective created a photo array that included Bautista and showed it to Pazo on May 20, 2009. He immediately identified Bautista as the person who fought with Natera, then returned with a gun and started shooting. The detective showed the array to Natera and Kyle Morrison, another witness. Neither made an identification.

On May 22, 2009, the police obtained a search warrant for Bautista’s home, but they did not find any evidence connecting him to the shooting. Bautista wasn’t home, and the officers told his family that he needed to come down to the police station. Bautista showed up at 7:30 p.m. In a statement, he said that he hadn’t been at the apartments on May 9, and that he didn’t shoot anyone. Bautista acknowledged being in a gang. He said he knew Natera, whom he called “Smokey,” from a brief encounter near the Lodi Library. In that incident, he and his brother had seen Natera and asked him whether he was a Norteño. Natera said he wasn’t, showing Juan and Adrian a belt without any gang affiliation. They left him alone.

Bautista told the detective that he had been mistakenly identified as the shooter because of the trespassing charge at the apartment complex. The detective said that wasn’t possible. The person who had made the identification hadn’t seen him trespassing. Bautista was arrested that night and charged with attempted murder, two counts of assault with a firearm, and street terrorism, based on his gang affiliation.

On June 30, 2009, more than a month after Bautista’s arrest, Humphreys also identified Bautista from a photo array, telling a police officer that he was 85-90 percent sure in his identification. The other eyewitnesses did not make an identification.

Bautista’s trial in San Joaquin Superior Court began on May 20, 2011. The state’s theory was that Bautista was in Lodi to recruit gang members and to fight members of rival gangs. Pazo testified that he identified Bautista as the gunman while he was still in the hospital. But under cross-examination, he acknowledged that his identification hadn’t taken place until his release. Humphreys also identified Bautista in court, and he testified that he had not been drinking on the night of the party.

Bautista did not testify, but his attorneys presented expert testimony about the unreliability of eyewitness identification. On June 16, 2011, the jury convicted Bautista on all charges, and on November 7, 2011, he received a sentence of 40 years to life in prison.

A week after Bautista’s sentencing, his brother, Adrian, told Juan’s attorney that he had shot Pazo. Adrian said that he knew Natera from Tokay High School and had run into him at the apartment complex. They had an argument about a recent shooting involving a friend of Natera’s. They fought, then Adrian left and got a gun. He said that he had drunk about 10 or 12 beers and had smoked marijuana, and that he fired the shots by accident.

Adrian said Juan wasn’t there; his brother had arrived at Garcia’s house later. He said that by that time, after the shooting, Adrian had already left for another party but forgot to tell Juan where he was.

The attorney asked Adrian why he hadn’t come forward earlier. He said he had just assumed his brother would be found not guilty due to a lack of evidence.

Based on this information, Juan Bautista filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on July 5, 2012. Judge Terrence Van Oss denied the petition on September 6, 2012.

At the time of his decision, California law required successful petitions for post-conviction relief to “completely undermine the entire structure of the case upon which the prosecution was based.”

Van Oss said the timing of Adrian Bautista’s confession was questionable, and his statement was uncorroborated and not conclusive. It didn’t undermine the state’s entire case. Van Oss noted that the eyewitness testimony contradicted Adrian’s statements about how he held the weapon and whether people ran away or towards him in the seconds before the shooting.

“Finally, two eyewitnesses to the crime positively identified Petitioner as the shooter,” Van Oss wrote. “Thus, at best, Adrian's confession might weaken the prosecution's case, but it does not completely undermine it.”

After this appeal was denied, Bautista sought a new trial based on a claim that prosecutors had improperly dismissed a potential juror during jury selection because she had a Hispanic surname. That motion was denied by California’s Third District Court of Appeal on May 20, 2013.

In 2014, Bautista contacted the Northern California Innocence Project, which is run through the Santa Clara University School of Law. It began representing Bautista in 2015, conducting an initial review of the case.

As part of this review, an attorney interviewed Leticia Paredes in 2016, the woman who was with Adrian Bautista at the time of the shooting. Paredes initially told the attorney that she was not inclined to help Juan Bautista, because of threats she had received after testifying in an unrelated shooting.

According to the attorney’s statement: “After Parades stated that she ‘did not want to be involved,’ I responded that I did not know the truth and that I needed to know if Juan is guilty just as much as I need to know what happened if he is innocent. I further explained that, if he is innocent, we want to help him because he is serving a 45 year to life sentence. If he is guilty, I need to know that so that NCIP might use its resources to help someone else.”

Paredes described the night of the shooting. She said that after Adrian Bautista fought with Natera, he returned with a gun and began firing “wildly and fearfully.”

In 2017, California amended its penal statute to lower the standard for granting habeas relief in cases where there is new evidence. Instead of this evidence having to “unerringly point to innocence,” the law said that the evidence had to be “credible, material, presented without substantial delay, and of such decisive force and value that it would have more likely than not changed the outcome at trial.”

With the assistance of attorneys from Covington and Burling and Sidley Austin in 2018, the NCIP began gathering more material on Bautista’s case.

In February 2018, a former FBI polygraph examiner working on behalf of Bautista’s legal team administered a test for Adrian Bautista and asked him a series of questions about his involvement in the shooting. The examiner wrote in his report that the results indicated that Adrian was being truthful in his responses that excluded his brother as a participant.

In May 2018, an investigator with NCIP interviewed Humphreys. According to the interview notes, Humphreys recanted part of his trial testimony, stating that he had drunk alcohol that night. At the end of the interview, the investigator presented Humphreys with two photographs taken of the Bautista brothers at around the time of the shooting. The brothers weren’t identified in the photos, but they were wearing similar jackets and their young nephew was in both shots. Without telling Humphreys which brother was which, the investigator asked Humphrey which person most resembled the shooter. Humphreys chose the photo of Adrian Bautista.

This information was given to the San Joaquin County District Attorney, which began a review through its Conviction Review Unit. On April 29, 2019, an investigator with the district attorney’s office interviewed Paredes, who had stopped answering messages left by Bautista’s legal team.

Now, Paredes made a full statement to the investigator, detailing the night of the shooting. Paredes said she had been with Bautista purely by chance; he had come outside with her after she had a fight with her boyfriend. They ran into the people from the other party, who were mostly “white guys,” except for Natera. He and Adrian fought. Adrian returned to Garcia’s apartment, where Paredes’s boyfriend called a friend for a gun. Adrian returned to the other party and began shooting.

The investigator wrote: “I asked if Adrian ever asked her to say something on behalf of Juan. She said, ‘No, never.’ She said it was not until she was approached by the lady investigator, that anyone had asked for her side of the story. She said the lady investigator told her Adrian wanted her to tell the truth and needed her help. I asked how the lady investigator knew she was involved, since her name had not appeared in a police report. She assumed Adrian must have said something.”

On September 27, 2019, Bautista filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in San Joaquin Superior Court. The petition said the new evidence met the threshold for granting relief now established under California law.

Judge Seth Hoyt Jr. ordered an evidentiary hearing for December 15-18, 2020. But the hearing was delayed because of the COVID pandemic and didn’t happen until June 14, 2021. Hoyt heard from most of the witnesses, although not Pazo or Adrian Bautista, who appeared with counsel. He invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify. His statements to the investigators and attorneys were admitted into the record.

On June 18, the district attorney’s office said that Juan Bautista’s habeas petition should be granted. Hoyt agreed, and on June 24, 2021, he vacated Bautista’s conviction. Later that day, Bautista was released from prison and his charge was dismissed. No charges have been filed against Adrian Bautista.

Kelley Fleming, his attorney with NCIP, said, “This case really highlights the risk of relying heavily on eyewitness identification to deprive someone of their freedom.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 7/13/2021
Last Updated: 7/13/2021
State:California
County:San Joaquin
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Other
Reported Crime Date:2009
Convicted:2011
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:40 to Life
Race/Ethnicity:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No