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Jofama Coleman

Other Los Angeles County, California homicide exonerations
At about 9 p.m. on May 10, 2003, 16-year-old Jose “Chino” Robles and his family were hosting a barbecue in their backyard on 101st Street in south Los Angeles. Around 9:00 p.m. Robles, a member of a graffiti tagging crew known as “No Control” (NC), decided to walk to a nearby liquor store.

On the way, Robles met another NC member, 15-year-old Albert Segundo, who was heading to the barbecue. Segundo warned Robles the liquor store was in “enemy territory.” Robles shrugged off the warning, saying he had his knife.

Segundo walked across the street from the Robles home to the home of a friend, 19-year-old Andres Sandoval. As Segundo and Sandoval stood there, they heard two gunshots.

Segundo saw Robles holding onto a fence rail as a gunman got out of a van and fired additional shots. The gunman got back in the van, which sped off. Segundo and Sandoval got in a car and followed the van. At a stop sign a couple of streets away, the passenger got out of the van and pointed a blue steel semi-automatic gun at Sandoval’s car. Sandoval turned around and returned to the Robles home.

Robles died of multiple gunshots.

Robles’s younger brother, Jesse Robles, who was 15, told police he was in the backyard when he heard the gunshots. Jesse said he and his friend, Carlos Lopez, went to the front yard and saw Rudy Robles, Jesse and Jose’s father, standing at the front gate, looking down the street. Jesse said that as Rudy began to run down the street, a white van with brown paneling drove past.

The witnesses said due to the darkness and the distance, they did not see faces. The van’s windows were tinted, so they could not see inside the van. Evidence would later show that Sandoval’s house, the location from which both Segundo and Sandoval saw the shooting, was 216 feet—or about two-thirds of the length of a football field—from where Robles was killed.

According to one police report, Segundo said he thought he recognized the gunman as a male Hispanic from a gang known as “Mexicans Kicking Ass” (MKA). Another police report said Segundo thought the driver might have been someone named “Pelon” and the gunman might have been someone named “Willy” from another gang, the “Dog Pound Gangsters” (DPG), but he was not sure. During an interview at the police station, Segundo said that another of Robles’s brothers, Adrian Robles, had told him that Adrian believed the driver might have been someone they knew as “Jofama.”

Another witness, Maria Renteria, told police that the driver and the gunman were both Black men.

Two days later, Jesse Robles told police the driver was 20-year-old Jofama Coleman. According to Jesse, Coleman had taken Jesse’s bike from him in the past. Earlier in the day of the shooting, Jesse said that Jose told him about having mocked Coleman’s younger brother during a confrontation on the street. When detectives showed Jesse a single photograph of Coleman, Jesse said he was positive that Coleman was driving the van.

On May 15, 2003, Carlos Lopez told police the driver of the van was “Jeremy’s brother.” According to Lopez, Jeremy, who was Coleman’s younger brother, had a confrontation with Jose and later, a green Toyota Camry showed up with Jeremy in the back seat. Lopez said the driver, Jeremy’s brother, demanded, “Which one of you was trying to fight my brother?”

When no one responded, he drove away, Lopez said. Lopez added that the driver of the van involved in the shooting was the same person who drove the green Toyota Camry. Lopez claimed he had never seen the white van before that night and that he had never associated that van with Jeremy’s brother.

On March 4, 2004, 10 months after the shooting, police re-interviewed Segundo. During this interview, Segundo said for the first time that the gunman was Abel Soto, who was 15 at the time of the crime. Segundo said he had not identified Soto before because he was afraid for himself and his family. Soto, whom he knew as “Drips,” was a member of the “Evil Klan” (EK) tagging crew.

As for the driver, Segundo said he could not be 100 percent sure if it was Coleman. He said that Jose’s brother, Adrian, had told him the driver was Coleman, and Segundo “couldn’t go against that.”

Although Coleman had once belonged to a tagging crew in the same neighborhood, he and Soto were not friends. Coleman was five years older than Soto.

On March 7, 2004, Segundo viewed a photographic lineup. Although he would later to testify that Soto had been his enemy since middle school and that he had had hundreds of encounters with Soto over the years, when Segundo was shown Soto’s photo in a six-pack lineup, he said he was “unsure,” because the photo was black and white and the nose looked different from what he remembered about Soto. When Segundo was shown a photographic lineup that included Coleman, he said he knew Coleman, that he knew Coleman had an eyebrow piercing and that when the van stopped, after they chased it, he was able to see a metal piercing in the driver’s right eyebrow.

On April 8, 2004, Detectives conducted a recorded interview of Soto in juvenile hall. By then, Soto was 16 years old. They questioned him for 90 minutes about the murder and Soto repeatedly said he was not involved. He said he would take a polygraph examination.

The detectives told Soto that they had a lot of evidence against him, including his DNA, which was false. They said that Coleman had implicated him as the gunman and passed a polygraph—both false statements.

When the detectives repeatedly demanded that Soto tell them where he had been at the timeof the murder, Soto said he was unable to do that because he did not even know the date of the murder.

Soto told the detectives that if they could find the van used in the murder and test it for his DNA, they would see he had not been present.

Toward the end of the interview, Soto told the detectives, “I’m being honest to God right now, I didn’t do shit.”

On April 29, 2004, three weeks later, a detective told Soto that the case against him was going to be presented to the District Attorney’s office, and suggested that he confess to the crime. Soto again denied involvement and again asked to take a polygraph examination.

“The only thing I can tell you then is that I wasn’t there, and I didn’t do it!” Soto insisted.

On October 5, 2004, Coleman was charged with first-degree murder.

On April 16, 2006, two years after Soto had been last interviewed by police, he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and two counts of assault with a firearm for pointing a gun at Segundo and Sandoval.

Two weeks later, on April 28, 2006, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury convicted Coleman of first-degree murder. At the trial, Coleman had been identified as the driver of the van by Jesse Robles, Carlos Lopez, Maria Renteria and Segundo.

Renteria testified that at the time of the shooting, she was in her car with her brother facing opposite the white van. She said her headlights shined into the van. She admitted that she had been shown a photographic lineup by police, but had not made an identification. Asked if Coleman, who was sitting at the defense table, was the van driver, Renteria said, “It looks like him.”

Segundo gave testimony that contradicted his statement to police. He told the jury that before the shooting, he saw the van pass by and recognized Soto as the passenger and Coleman as the driver. In his statement to police, Segundo had said he saw the van pass by before the shooting, but could not identify who was inside; he only recognized the gunman as Soto after Soto got out of the van to shoot Robles.

In Coleman’s defense, his wife, Evelyn Medina, and another friend testified that he was with them at Medina’s house at the time of the crime. She said they had visited a Blockbuster Video store together earlier that night. While there was a store surveillance tape, it was scrambled and could not be viewed. A sheriff’s deputy testified that the cameras showed Coleman inside for less than five minutes and he left at 9:38 p.m. The store was just five to seven minutes from the scene of the shooting, enough time for Coleman to have been involved, the deputy testified.

Coleman was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Soto went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court in February 2007. A mistrial was declared after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Soto went to trial a second time in July 2007. Segundo was the only witness to identify him as the gunman. Segundo had described the gunman as short—about his same height of 5 feet 5 inches tall—and fat. The other witnesses had said the gunman was possibly as tall as six feet and had a muscular build.

Segundo admitted that he had a rivalry with Soto and had hated him since they were in middle school together.

While Segundo testified that he had not initially identified Soto as the shooter to law enforcement because he feared retaliation, he did not explain why he had provided other names to law enforcement, and why he had not instead stated that he had been unable to see the face of either the driver or the shooter. He also did not explain why he believed that providing names of people who had not been involved in the murder would not subject him to retaliation from those people.

On August 13, 2007, the jury convicted Soto of first-degree murder and two counts of assault with a firearm for pointing a gun at the car containing Sandoval and Segundo. He was sentenced to 72 years and 8 months in prison.

Both men appealed and the Second District California Court of Appeal upheld their convictions.

In 2010, Coleman, acting as his own lawyer, filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. While in the prison law library, Coleman had managed, with a cousin’s financial help, to hire a video expert to examine the Blockbuster surveillance tape. A detailed analysis showed that Coleman and Medina arrived at 9:25 p.m. This narrowed the time frame for him to have been involved in the shooting, change vehicles, pick up Medina and arrive at the store.

In January 2015, the petition was denied.

Five years later, in 2020, a confluence of random events would ultimately lead to the exoneration of Coleman and Soto.

By that time, Coleman and his now-ex-wife, Medina, had reached out seeking help in his case from attorney Ellen Eggers, a former public defender. Eggers had been involved in one previous exoneration—Franky Carillo—and was working on two other cases that would also end in exoneration—Arturo Jimenez and Joaquin Ciria.

Eggers was unable to help Coleman due to her workload. However, she had gotten a call from Jessica Jacobs Dirschel, a school teacher who lived in Topanga Canyon. Dirschel had learned of Eggers and her exoneration work while watching a Netflix documentary. Dirschel said she wanted to help.

By that time, Coleman had persuaded the California Supreme Court to allow him a hearing on whether he was entitled to the police file of his case, known as the “murder book.” When the hearing occurred, Dirschel attended on his behalf. She argued that Coleman was entitled to his murder book as well as Soto’s murder book.

The request for both murder books was granted.

Ultimately, Dirschel and Eggers went to Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, in Blythe, California, five miles from the Arizona state line, to interview Jesse Robles, who was incarcerated for an unrelated crime.

During the interview, Robles recanted his identification of Coleman as the driver of the van. He said that someone else had speculated that Coleman was the driver and he agreed to testify that he recognized Coleman.

Meanwhile, a former student of Dirschel’s had taken a course at the University of California-San Diego from Dr. John Wixted, a psychology professor and an eyewitness identification and memory expert. Dr. Wixted was promoting a new consensus among experts that the most reliable evidence from an eyewitness came from the first test of the witness’s memory, and that all subsequent tests of memory were contaminated by the first test. Thus, a witness’s failure to select a suspect on the first test of memory was evidence pointing to a suspect’s innocence.

After the student connected Dr. Wixted to Coleman’s defense team, the expert agreed to review the case. Ultimately, Dr. Wixted opined that in the Coleman case, the failure of two eyewitnesses to the murder, Maria Renteria and her brother, to identify Coleman initially was evidence probative of his innocence. In the Soto case, Segundo was the only witness to ever identify Soto as the shooter. Dr. Wixted said that Segundo’s failure to select Soto from the first six-pack was simply inexplicable, given Segundo’s claim that he went to school with Soto, knew him well, and that they had been enemies for years. Segundo’s failure to select Soto was similarly probative of Soto’s innocence, Dr. Wixted said.

In January 2023, Eggers presented a claim of innocence on behalf of Coleman and Soto to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU). When the CIU did not take immediate action to investigate the case, Eggers asked the District Attorney’s Habeas Litigation Unit to consider the evidence. After doing so, in November 2023, as Eggers was about to file a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the Habeas unit agreed to prepare a joint petition for a writ of habeas corpus for both cases, beginning first with the Soto case. On January 3, 2024, Coleman was released from prison. Soto remained in Soledad State Prison.

On January 19, 2024, the District Attorney’s Office and Eggers jointly filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus for Soto.

The petition described how evidence pointed to two other suspects as the driver and gunman in the murder. The suspects were not identified. The petition said that a detective had interviewed a witness who identified a photograph of one of these suspects as the person who had claimed responsibility for the murder about a week after the crime. The witness said, “Abel [Soto] didn’t have nothin’ to do with any of that…he wasn’t anywhere near any of that.” The petition said that two other witnesses also corroborated that account.

The petition also said that a witness who had not testified at Coleman’s trial reported in 2024 that in the early evening on the day of the crime, he was with Coleman and Coleman’s brothers. They had gone to a Burger King restaurant where the witness’s girlfriend gave them free food. After finishing, they went to Medina’s house for a movie night.

The petition noted that Dr. Wixted had submitted a report that concluded, “the overall eyewitness evidence in this case would point strongly in the direction of innocence.”

On January 24, 2024, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Ryan granted Soto’s joint habeas petition, vacated his conviction, dismissed the charges, and declared him factually innocent. On January 27, 2024, Soto was released from prison.

On February 27, 2024, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Ryan then granted Coleman’s joint habeas petitions for both men, vacated his conviction, dismissed the charges and declared him factually innocent.

At a press conference on February 28, District Attorney George Gascón declared, “Jofama Coleman and Abel Soto were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for a murder they did not commit. Our hearts also go out to Jose Robles’ family, who have suffered immeasurably through this tragedy and injustice. To everyone impacted, we offer not just words of regret, but a solemn promise of our unwavering pursuit of truth and justice.”

Eggers said, “Jofama Coleman and Abel Soto are my heroes, never faltering in their quest for justice. Jofama transformed his cell into a classroom to master the law itself. Their indomitable spirit, coupled with Jessica Jacobs’ [Dirschel] essential support, unraveled the truth that set them free.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/11/2024
Last Updated: 3/11/2024
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2003
Sentence:25 years to life
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No