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Miguel Solorio

Other Los Angeles County, California exonerations
Late in the evening of December 6, 1998, 36-year-old Martin Leiva was driving a car containing five passengers ranging in age from 15 to 22 in Whittier, California. They were looking for someone to sell them marijuana. At about 11 p.m., Leiva slowed down by a vehicle parked under Interstate 605. However, the driver yelled, “Where are you from?” and other threatening words.

When Leiva heard one of his passengers say “gun,” he drove off. He sped through a red traffic light at Pioneer and Washington Boulevards and entered the 605 freeway. At about the same time, 81-year-old Mary Bramlett pulled to a stop at the same red light. She was driving her friends, 79-year-old Ellis Butcher and 73-year-old Lucile Thompson, home after an evening of playing bridge at their church.

As she waited at the light, a car pulled up on the driver’s side of her car. A gun was fired, and Bramlett was struck in the head. The car sped away. Four days later, Bramlett died. The investigation was transferred to Detective Dan McElderry in the sheriff’s homicide unit.

Not long after Bramlett was shot, Leiva learned about the shooting and flagged down a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department squad car. Leiva reported that the driver of the vehicle they had approached had yelled out, "I'm Clever from Quiet Village!" the name of a street gang. Leiva said he didn’t know the names of his passengers, although he knew one of the girls as “Angel.”

Detectives identified the passengers as 15-year-old Stephanie Sanchez, 18-year-old Rose Lemus, 22-year-old Angelica Martinez, 21-year-old Kelly Espinoza and 16-year-old Richard Casillas. Martinez first told police she recognized the driver as someone she knew as “Clever.” In her second interview, Martinez said she and Lemus both called out, “That’s Clever!” and that the driver had said he was “Clever.”

After consulting a Sheriff’s Department gang officer, police created a photographic lineup containing a photograph of 19-year-old Miguel Solorio Jr., a known Quiet Village gang member whose nickname was Clever. The lineup was shown separately to Martinez and Leiva, but neither identified Solorio. Leiva said the filler in the #2 position looked “kinda like the driver.” Martinez pointed to the same filler and said it was “not [the driver], but had hair and slight mustache like him.”

Based on Martinez’s comment, police found a different photo of Solorio, created another lineup with a different set of fillers, and showed it to Martinez. “This is Clever,” she said, pointing to Solorio. “The guy with the gun. He had a little more hair than this.” Solorio was the only person in both lineups.

Sanchez had said she heard the driver yell, “Where you from?” and “F--- Cucarachas. Quiet Village.” Cucarachas was a slang term for the Cantas Ranas, a street gang rival to the Quiet Village gang. Sanchez viewed the second lineup but was unable to make an identification. Sanchez said she never heard anyone in the other car say the name Clever. Instead, she said that Martinez had said the name.

Lemus told police she only heard “Where you from?” Lemus also was not able to make an identification from the lineup.

Espinoza denied being in the car at all and refused to look at the photographic lineup.

On December 9, 1998, police arrested Solorio and the following day, his photograph was on the front page of the Whittier Daily News newspaper. Police also arrested his brother, Pedro, and two others.

Solorio told the police he was neither the driver nor the shooter. He said he was with his girlfriend, Silvia Torres, the entire evening. On Sunday, December 6, 1998, Torres arrived at his house and they ate posole with his family. Solorio said he and Torres went to the movies but returned home before the movie ended. Torres then drove them to the home of his sister, Sandra Solorio, where they remained until close to midnight. He said Torres then drove him home. After she got to her house, Solorio said he and Torres spoke on the phone until 1:00 a.m.

Detectives took the case to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office based on the witness statements and Martinez’s identification. However, the prosecutors declined to prosecute the case because of insufficient evidence. Solorio, Pedro and the two other men were released on December 11.

Four days after Solorio was on the front page, McElderry showed the second photographic lineup to Casillas. After “several minutes,” Casillas identified Solorio as the driver of the car. Casillas said he and Solorio had had confrontations at their high school the previous year.

In January, a month after the shooting, Leiva was shown the second photographic lineup. He identified Solorio, saying, “I’m 100 percent sure this is the driver, the guy with the gun. It’s not every day you have a gun pointed at you.”

During the investigation, McElderry noticed a dented light blue Mercury with a dark brown driver’s side door. Shown photographs of the car, the eyewitnesses said this was the car that they had approached and been threatened. McElderry reported that the car was registered to Solorio. Had McElderry checked Department of Motor Vehicle records, he would have learned the car was registered to Solorio’s father, Miguel Solorio Sr.

In February 1999, police converged on a group of nine or 10 people who had gathered near a van parked in an area where Quiet Village gang members were known to hang out. Under the van, police found a .357 revolver. Solorio was present but about 15 feet away. Others were arrested, including Michael Jimenez, who told police that earlier that day, Solorio had called a gang member named “Vago” and asked Vago to bring the gun to Solorio’s house. Jimenez told the police that Solorio had brought the gun to the gathering and gave it to someone else to hold.

On March 25, 1999, police arrested Solorio. He was charged with first-degree murder for the shooting of Bramlett and six counts of assault with a firearm—for Leiva and his five passengers.

In February 2000, Solorio went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The prosecution had a difficult time. Martinez admitted she had only met Solorio—the person she had identified as Clever—once before at a party three or four years earlier. The defense brought in Solorio’s brother, Pedro, who was two years older than Solorio. Martinez admitted they looked alike, and that she could not be sure which one she saw driving the car on the night of the crime.

Levia and Martinez, however, both identified Solorio as the driver of the car who had displayed a gun. Casillas denied looking at the lineup, and said he merely signed where the detectives told him to sign.

McElderry admitted that records introduced by the defense showed that the Mercury that was said to be Solorio’s car was registered to Solorio’s father.

Jimenez testified that he had never seen Solorio with the gun. He said that in an attempt to stay out of trouble, he gave false information implicating Solorio.

A sheriff’s department firearms analyst testified that he examined the bullet recovered from Bramlett's head, a bullet recovered at the scene, and the .357 Smith and Wesson revolver recovered from under the van. He concluded that the bullet from the scene had been fired from the recovered firearm.

The defense presented evidence that Solorio did not drive his father’s Mercury, but that his brother, Pedro, did. Sandra Solorio testified that on the night of the shooting, Pedro came to her house around 9 p.m. and that Miguel and Torres arrived about 10:30 p.m. Pedro left soon after to buy beer. Miguel stayed at the house. Sandra testified that Miguel never drove the Mercury, but that Pedro and another older brother, Alejandro, did.

Torres testified that she and Solorio arrived at Sandra’s house around 10:30 p.m. She recalled that Pedro and the Mercury were already there. Torres said that about 10:45 p.m., Pedro left in the Mercury with another man whom she did not know. Torres said Pedro returned about an hour later without any beer.

The jury was advised that Pedro had been called as a witness, but upon advice of counsel had chosen not to testify. Jurors were instructed not to draw any conclusions “one way or the other from this.”

The defense also called McElderry, who admitted he had not investigated Pedro as an alternative suspect, and that he had not investigated Solorio’s alibi.

During cross-examination, the prosecutor asked McElderry about his interview with Torres after the shooting: “Did you explain to her the area where the murder occurred?”

“Yes, I did,” McElderry said.

“Did you explain to her the time and the date the murder occurred?” the prosecutor asked.

“I believe so,” McElderry said.

“Did you explain to her the reasons why Miguel had been arrested for that offense?”

“Yes,” McElderry said.

“And did she offer you any information about Pedro Solorio?”

“None whatsoever,” McElderry replied.

“Any information about the family car?” the prosecutor asked.

“None whatsoever,” McElderry said.

On March 3, 2000, after three days of deliberation, the jury convicted Solorio of first-degree murder and six counts of assault with a firearm. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In October 2001, the Second District California Court of Appeal affirmed the convictions and sentence.

In 2003, Solorio filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition was denied in 2005.

In 2011, Solorio wrote to Ellen Eggers, an attorney in the California State Appellate Defender’s Office and begged her to take his case. Eggers was unable to do so because she could only handle court-appointed capital cases. Nonetheless, Solorio continued to write to Eggers, and eventually she agreed to review his materials with an eye to recommending his case to an innocence project. During this time, Eggers had conversations with Torres, who had since married Solorio. Eggers would later say, “She testified at his trial as his alibi witness and, three years after his conviction, married Miguel; because she knew he was innocent and could not abandon him. I found her very credible and was impressed by her loyalty.”

In 2012, Eggers referred the case to the Loyola Project for the Innocent (LPI) at Loyola University Law School at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. In December 2013, Eggers retired from the appellate defender’s office and began doing pro bono legal work. She learned that Solorio’s case had been transferred to the California Innocence Project (CIP) at California Western School of Law in San Diego. At the time, Eggers was deeply involved in the Arturo Jimenez case, which led to Jimenez’s exoneration in 2020.

But Eggers continued to communicate with Torres, who said that Miguel’s mother, Rosalina, had always protected Pedro, and had urged other family members to stay quiet about Pedro’s involvement in the crime.

Torres, meanwhile, was digging into the case on her own. She had obtained a statement from a woman, R.B., who at the time of the crime was living in the Solorio home. R.B. said that on the night of the shooting, she saw Pedro leave the house with a handgun that he had kept hidden in R.B.’s room among her baby’s clothes. R.B. also said that Pedro had confessed to his mother that he, not Miguel, was the gunman, and the mother asked R.B. to lie to protect Pedro.

Torres told Eggers that Pedro, who went to prison on unrelated crimes, had written to Torres in 2010 saying he would come forward with the truth about what had happened that night “with Jose,” but not until he was out of prison. Torres said she had other letters Pedro wrote to her and Miguel from 2007 to 2011 that had similar language suggesting that Pedro was guilty and Miguel was innocent.

Eggers said that in 2015, Torres emailed and said the CIP was going to close the case because there was insufficient evidence to proceed after CIP had interviewed Pedro, who had been released and was in Mexico. Pedro had refused to discuss what happened on the night of the shooting.

Eggers said that she learned that since 2012, Solorio had become very depressed, had lost weight, and had been kept alive with a feeding tube. He had largely recovered with medical treatment, including electro-shock therapy.

In May 2019, Torres reported that the family had hired an attorney. However, the attorney had used up the retainer to hire an investigator, who had only interviewed one witness. When the attorney declined to do any more work pro bono, Eggers agreed to examine the case. She discovered that the witness who had been interviewed, G.T., had said that a man named Jose Perez had admitted to being the gunman. However, Eggers by then was also focused on the case of Joaquin Ciria, who would be exonerated in April 2022.

In November 2019, Miguel’s mother sent Eggers a 2011 death certificate for Perez, saying that he was the gunman. “The name stood out because it was the same person [G.T.] said had confessed,” Eggers said.

In August 2020, Eggers formally agreed to represent Solorio. As part of the investigation, she spoke to a witness identified as E.P. in Mexico. E.P. said that on the night of the shooting, he saw Pedro and Jose leave Sandra’s home in the Mercury. Before they left, Jose flashed a gun and said he was to prove himself to the gang, E.P. said. Miguel did not accompany them, he said.

A few days later, E.P. said he saw Jose, who was renting a back room from E.P. at the time, packing frantically. Jose said he was leaving for Mexico because he had killed a woman by mistake, E.P. said.

Eggers was joined by attorney Megan Baca in late 2020. In January 2021, Baca obtained about 6,000 pages of documents in the case from the District Attorney’s office. In the documents was a transcript of surreptitious recordings made of Solorio, Pedro and the two others after they were first arrested on December 9, 1998. They discussed how the story had been in the newspapers and on television. There was also a typed transcript of Detective McElderry’s interview with Torres on December 11, 1998.

In May 2021, Eggers sent a request to the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), which agreed to review Solorio’s case. In January 2022, the CIP sent its file to Eggers. In the file was a report of a telephone interview in 2014 with Leiva. In that interview, Leiva said he never heard anyone say, “I’m Clever.”

In May 2022, Eggers contacted the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) at Santa Clara University Law School for assistance in preparing a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus. NCIP attorney Sarah Pace began working on the case and was later joined by NCIP legal director Paige Kaneb. In the fall of 2022, the lawyers consulted with Dr. John Wixted, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego. After reviewing Solorio’s case, Dr. Wixted concluded that the initial failures by witnesses to identify Solorio were “highly probative of Solorio’s innocence.”

The legal team then discovered that Detective McElderry had a second interview with Torres on December 17, 1998. This interview was recorded electronically. In this interview, Torres said that the light blue car did not belong to Miguel, but to his father, that Miguel never drove that car. She said that Pedro did, however, and that Pedro had left Sandra’s house on the night of the crime with someone else.

This interview was critical, Kaneb realized, because it showed that McElderry had testified falsely at Solorio’s trial when he said that Torres had given no information “whatsoever” supporting Solorio’s innocence.

In July 2023, NCIP filed the state petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition said that Solorio’s trial defense attorney had the transcript of McElderry’s interview with Torres, but failed to impeach the detective after the detective falsely testified that Torres had provided no information of Solorio’s innocence. The petition also asserted that the trial prosecutor had failed to correct McElderry’s false testimony.

The petition presented the new evidence of Solorio’s innocence, including declarations from witnesses R.B., E.P., and G.T. about the identities of the actual perpetrators. Dr. Wixted also provided a declaration detailing how, according to a new scientific consensus, the identification evidence presented at Solorio’s trial was proof of his innocence, rather than his guilt. He said fact finders should focus on the first test of a witness’s memory. The fact that no eyewitness identified Solorio the first time they were presented with his photo was evidence of his innocence, Dr. Wixted said.

On October 13, 2023, the District Attorney’s habeas litigation unit sent a letter to the judge assigned to the case, Debra Cole-Hall, saying that based upon the reinvestigation, Solorio’s convictions should be vacated. The letter said the office “concedes that the cumulative impact of new evidence of actual innocence…creates a reasonable probability that the outcome of Mr. Solorio’s trial would have been different.”

In response, the judge asked the prosecution for its position on all of Solorio’s habeas claims. Asserting that a concession on any one of a petitioner’s habeas claims rendered the remainder of them moot, the prosecution asked to appear in court to provide an explanation. Judge Cole-Hall refused.

On October 18, 2023, the habeas litigation unit sent another letter to the judge to “emphatically reiterate its concession that Mr. Solorio is entitled to immediate habeas relief, and to respectfully request that the Court grant him that relief.”

In the letter, the prosecution described in extraordinary detail all of the evidence pointing to Solorio’s innocence. In particular, the prosecution pointed to the surreptitious recordings right after Solorio and Pedro were arrested. “Mr. Solorio laments the notion that he could possibly be incarcerated for a crime he did not commit and discusses not knowing what gun was used in the murder,” the letter said. “Pedro flippantly boasts that the police did not find the gun that he had hidden—which was the same type of gun as the murder weapon—and the gun the police found was not even the one that was used in the murder, indicating his personal involvement in the murder and knowledge of the weapon used.”

The prosecution requested that Judge Cole-Hall grant Solorio “the relief to which he is unequivocally entitled.” The judge said she was not prepared to rule prior to a scheduled vacation from late October until November 20.

On November 7, 2023, the CIU and lawyers for Solorio filed an 18-page report of the investigation of the case, meticulously dissecting the evidence. The report was filed with Judge William Ryan. It noted that although the prosecution and defense were aware of the existence of McElderry’s second interview with Torres, “no report of this interview was ever prepared and provided as discovery.”

“[T]he CIU investigation has uncovered additional corroborating exculpatory evidence in the form of witness statements, including additional alibi evidence and third-party culpability evidence, which further support Miguel Jr.'s claim of innocence and cast doubt on the validity of the challenged conviction,” the report said. “This additional evidence establishes that Miguel Jr. was not the driver of the vehicle in question. It bears noting that not one person in the post-conviction investigation has pointed to Miguel Jr. as being involved in any manner in the shooting. Rather, several witnesses, some related to an individual named Jose Perez, and others with no connection to Miguel Jr., have pointed to Jose as the shooter and Miguel Jr. 's brother Pedro as the driver.”

The CIU reported that during an interview with Kelly Espinoza, who denied at the trial that she was in the car, Espinoza admitted she was in the car. She said that she knew Solorio was not the driver because she knew him from before that night. “She stated the driver was facing forward, but she knew from the driver’s profile that [he] was not Miguel Jr.”

On November 9, 2023, Judge Ryan vacated Solorio’s convictions and the prosecution dismissed the charges.

“This nightmare started when I was 19 years old,” Solorio said in a statement provided by the NCIP. “I’m now 44. This was going to be my 25th Christmas in prison. Being home this year will be the best present ever.”

On December 13, 2023, following the filing of a joint motion by the prosecution and Solorio's lawyers, Judge Ryan signed an order declaring Solorio factually innocent.

Solorio filed a claim for state compensation for his wrongful conviction in January 2024. On March 5, 2024, the California Victim Compensation Board recommended that Solorio receive $1,260,420 in compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/13/2023
Last Updated: 4/12/2024
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault
Reported Crime Date:1998
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No