Shortly after midnight on May 12, 1996, gunshots were exchanged between two cars on 1st Street in Santa Ana, California, in what police said was a gang-related shooting. A passenger in one of the cars, 21-year-old Martha Gonzalez, was killed.
Two of the five passengers who were in the car with Gonzalez said that they belonged to a street gang and that members of a rival gang known as the Evil Kids had fired the shots. Police pulled photographs of members of the Evil Kids gang, including a photo of 21-year-old Alfonso Gomez.
The two witnesses said that Gomez looked similar to the gunman. When police went to question Gomez, he said that he was not involved in the shooting. Police later determined that the car from which the shots were fired belonged to another gang member, Armando Parra. Police located the car, which had bullet holes in it from shots fired back from passengers in the car containing Gonzalez.
The witnesses were shown a photograph of Parra. One said that it was possible that Parra was the gunman and that there may have been two gunmen.
Gomez was arrested on November 9, 1996 for the murder of Gonzalez and the attempted murder of the five other passengers as well as shooting into an occupied vehicle and street terrorism. Gomez continued to deny involvement in the murder.
At the same time, Gomez also was charged with two other crimes allegedly committed in October 1996—an armed robbery in Westminster, California and a drive-by shooting in Orange, California in which he was accused of being the driver.
In 1998, Gomez went on trial before a jury in Orange County Superior Court. The two witnesses who were in the car that was shot up in Santa Anna identified him in court as the gunman in the Gonzalez murder. Other witnesses identified him in the two other crimes. On May 15, 1998, Gomez was convicted of all three incidents. He was sentenced to 41 years to life in prison for the murder and nine years in prison for the other two cases, to be served concurrently.
New evidence of Gomez’s innocence came to light in 2009, when detectives were investigating the unsolved homicide of 16-year-old Troy Garena, which also occurred in 1996. One of the suspects was an Evil Kids gang member named Joe Louis Garay.
During the investigation of the Garena murder, detectives executed a search warrant at Garay’s residence and recovered a gun. Ballistics tests on the gun by the Orange County crime laboratory linked the weapon to the murder of Martha Gonzalez.
As a result, the investigation of Gonzalez’s murder was re-opened and in March 2009, Parra and two other gang members were charged with the murder of Gonzalez. In addition, Garay and another gang member were charged with murdering Garena.
Because Gomez insisted that he was not involved in the Gonzalez murder, in August 2012, Santa Ana police interviewed Parra, who was still awaiting trial on the Gonzalez murder. Parra told them that his car was used in the shooting that killed Gonzalez and that he was in the passenger seat at the time. He declined to identify anyone else in the car, but said that Gomez was not involved.
The detectives then contacted the Orange County District Attorney’s office, which agreed to join in a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by Gomez’s attorney, Erica Gambale. On November 30, 2012, Gomez’s convictions for the murder of Martha Gonzalez, the attempted murder of the other passengers, shooting into an occupied vehicle and street terrorism were vacated and the charges were dismissed.
Gomez was not released immediately because of his convictions for the other shooting and the armed robbery, but prosecutors said they would seek a parole hearing since Gomez would have been eligible for parole on those charges in 2006.
– Maurice Possley