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Ignacio Dealba, Jr.

Other Nevada Exonerations
Around 12:45 p.m. on June 7, 2005, Veronica Gonzalez stopped at a McDonald’s in Las Vegas, Nevada, to use the restroom. It was just after the lunch hour, and Gonzalez and a co-worker ran a catering truck. As Gonzalez returned to the truck, a man tried to grab a cloth bag under her arm that contained about $900.

They struggled, but the man was able to wrestle the bag away. Gonzalez ran after him, but stopped when the man pointed a gun at her. He got into a red BMW, idling in the parking lot. The co-worker did not see the robbery.

Tim Shalhoob, an off-duty officer with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, was at the McDonald’s when he heard Gonzalez scream. Shalhoob saw the man run to the BMW, and he quickly drove his GMC Yukon to block the car’s escape. He yelled “Police,” and pointed his weapon at the BMW, but the driver was able to skirt the Yukon and leave the parking lot.

Shalhoob gave chase. The man shot at him several times out of the BMW’s sunroof. Shalhoob lost the car in traffic, but he was able to give investigators a partial license plate, which was traced to a woman named Shirley Vaughn. Two hours after the robbery and chase, Shalhoob described the man he saw as a Black man wearing a light-colored short-sleeved shirt. Gonzalez also described the robber as a Black man.

Later on June 7, Detective Lance Spiotto spotted the BMW. Spiotto followed the car to Shirley Vaughn’s address and arrested the driver, Vaughn’s son, James Vaughn.

In his first statement to police, Vaughn said his accomplice was a man he called “Nacho,” and he gave investigators an address. Police drove there and arrested 22-year-old Ignacio Dealba Jr. at about 7:30 p.m. The police brought Shalhoob and Gonzalez separately to Dealba’s home. At about 8:30, Shalhoob viewed Dealba as he sat handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. Shalhoob said that although Dealba’s skin appeared lighter than he remembered, he was “80 percent certain” that he was the robber. Gonzalez was unable to make an identification. Vaughn and Dealba were each charged with attempted murder, armed robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, and weapons possession by an ex-felon.

At a preliminary hearing on June 23, 2005, Shalhoob again identified Dealba as the man he saw rob Gonzalez. Shalhoob said at the hearing that when he made his identification outside Dealba’s house, Dealba’s skin had looked lighter than during the robbery, which took place in broad daylight. In addition, he had never mentioned that the robber had any identifying marks. Dealba had tattoo sleeves on both arms. In addition, Dealba said he is Hispanic, not Black.

Gonzalez also appeared at the preliminary hearing, but she was not asked to make an identification.

Beginning February 6, 2006, Vaughn and Dealba were tried together in Clark County District Court. Dealba’s attorney moved to sever the cases and to exclude Vaughn’s statements to police about Dealba’s involvement with the robbery. Judge Valorie Vega denied both motions.

No physical or forensic evidence tied Dealba to the crime. The police did not recover any money from his home, and he was eliminated as a contributor to the 11 fingerprints found in the BMW. (Court records don’t indicate whether the prints were connected to other persons.)

Shalhoob identified Dealba as the person who robbed Gonzalez and then jumped into the BMW in the parking lot. Gonzalez did not make an identification during trial but did say that the robber was dark-skinned.

Spiotto – the detective who spotted the BMW after the crime and arrested Vaughn – testified about Vaughn’s statements, but Vaughn did not testify. That eliminated the opportunity for Dealba’s attorney to cross-examine Vaughn. The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to confront their accusers, and to circumvent this issue, Spiotto never used Dealba’s name in his testimony about Vaughn’s statement. Instead, he used the word “individual.”

For example, Spiotto was asked: “And did he [Vaughn] tell you anything else in regards to the robbery that had taken place?” He responded: “Stated that originally he was going to this gas station, which is also McDonald’s, he was with another individual; they just, for whatever reasons, the robbery went down, and after that he heard shots coming from his car, but this other individual was responsible for, and they took off as fast as they could.”

Spiotto testified that Vaughn told him that after the robbery, he drove the individual back to the individual’s home, and they ordered a pizza while they split up the proceeds. Vaughn said he received $300.

During deliberations, the jury asked several questions of clarification. They wanted a more precise definition of “dark-skinned,” and they also wanted to know about the fingerprints found in the BMW and whether Gonzalez’s co-worker had given the police any descriptions.

The jury convicted Vaughn and Dealba on February 10, 2006, on the robbery charge but acquitted them of the conspiracy charge. Dealba was also convicted of attempted murder. Judge Vega later convicted Dealba on the weapons charge. Dealba received a combined sentence for the three convictions of between five years and six months and 24 years in prison.

Dealba appealed his conviction. His attorneys said in a motion for a new trial that Judge Vega shouldn’t have allowed jurors to hear Vaughn’s statements, because they violated his constitutional right to confront an accuser. But having admitted this evidence, the motion said, Judge Vega needed to give jurors a limiting instruction that the statements could only be used against Vaughn. The appeal noted that Vaughn’s statements themselves were not admitted into evidence; all jurors heard were the descriptions of the statements by Spiotto and another officer. The motion also said the rest of the state’s case against Dealba was weak, calling Shalhoob’s identification specious. Vaughn’s statements tied everything together.

“Vaughn could have implicated anyone,” the motion said. “He knew the police wanted the name of the person who was shooting at the police officer. Vaughn didn’t want to give the name of the real shooter, for fear of reprisals in prison. So he gave the police the name of a friend who lived nearby where he had stopped to regroup after the high-speed chase. That friend was Dealba … No doubt, Vaughn figured that by implicating Dealba who was Hispanic when the shooter was a [B]lack man, Dealba would not be identified by the witnesses, so no harm no foul.”

The Nevada Supreme Court vacated Dealba’s conviction and granted him a new trial on January 2, 2009.

The court said that Vaughn’s statements were admissible, because Dealba’s name was redacted. But it said that Judge Vega needed to give jurors guidance on how to properly consider this evidence. “Absent an appropriate limiting instruction, the jury could have used the statements made by Vaughn against Dealba despite the redactions that replaced Dealba's name with a neutral term,” the court said. The error wasn’t harmless, the court said, because, “the evidence against Dealba was not particularly strong, making it less likely that Vaughn's statement did not contribute to the verdict against Dealba.”

The court called Shalhoob’s identification “shaky at best,” and that “its reliability is questionable.”

Prosecutors moved to dismiss the case on September 3, 2009, and a judge dismissed the case on September 29, 2009. Dealba, who had a concurrent sentence on an unrelated conviction, was released from prison on December 3, 2009.

On July 21, 2021, Dealba filed a motion in Clark County District Court, asking a judge to find him factually innocent of the robbery and related crimes. This would allow him to receive state compensation. Previous recipients of state compensation in Nevada had reached an agreement with the attorney general’s office about the merits of their claim; Dealba’s case was the first where an applicant needed to prove his innocence in court.

As part of the application, Dealba’s attorneys, Travis Barrick and Nathan Lawrence, submitted an affidavit from Vaughn dated March 25, 2021, that said that he led police to Dealba because they pressured him to name an accomplice and “protect himself.” Dealba was not involved, Vaughn said. Dealba’s stepfather, Michael Robinette, also submitted an affidavit, dated February 24, 2021, that said he saw Dealba at home, working on his car, at the time of the robbery. Dealba’s trial attorney gave prosecutors notice of Robinette as an alibi witness, but he was never called to testify.

“It’s a hard thing to prove innocence, because it’s not just proving that you weren’t guilty,” Lawrence told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “You actually have to prove that you were innocent of the underlying facts.”

Judge Joanna Kushner awarded Dealba a certificate of innocence on January 20, 2022 and ordered the state to pay him $220,923 in compensation, including attorney’s fees and housing assistance.

Nevada’s board of examiners approved the payment on March 8, 2022. Attorney General Aaron Ford, who sits on the board, said: “Justice oftentimes requires exoneration and compensation, as opposed to simple conviction and incarceration. So I am honored to be able to vote in support of Mr. Dealba.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/17/2022
Last Updated: 3/17/2022
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Gun Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:2005
Sentence:5 years and 6 months to 24 years
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No