Man Wrongly Convicted of Murder Sues Prosecutors – Efren Cruz

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VENTURA COUNTY [b]Man Wrongly Convicted of Murder Sues Prosecutors [/b] Law: Efren Cruz of Oxnard seeks $120 million. He served four years for a shooting in Santa Barbara. LA Times ‘ Dec. 13, 2001 By TRACY WILSON, TIMES STAFF WRITER An Oxnard man wrongly convicted of murder has filed a federal lawsuit against Santa Barbara prosecutors and police officers, accusing them of negligence and conspiracy to keep him in prison. After four years behind bars, Efren Cruz, 27, was freed Oct. 12 when a judge ruled that credible evidence suggests that another man pulled the trigger during a 1997 gang shooting in downtown Santa Barbara. Last week, Cruz filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that accuses nearly a dozen law enforcement officials of violating his civil rights before and after his trial. [b]The lawsuit accuses Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Thomas W. Sneddon and three senior prosecutors of conspiracy and malicious prosecution for allegedly withholding evidence favorable to Cruz. [/b] Prosecutors and six Santa Barbara police officers are accused of negligent investigation for allegedly failing to pursue evidence that indicated that another suspect was the killer. The lawsuit also charges Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Hilary Dozer, lead prosecutor on the case, with defamation for blaming Cruz in the media “when he knew or should have known that there was great doubt that [Cruz] was [the] actual shooter.” Cruz is seeking more than $120 million in damages. “I think that my client is entitled to be compensated for 4 1/2 years in Pelican Bay,” said Thousand Oaks attorney Richard Hamlish, referring to the maximum-security prison. “To serve there and be innocent of a crime, the kid’s life was ruined,” Hamlish said. Sneddon and other law enforcement officials named in the lawsuit could not be reached Wednesday. Dozer and Santa Barbara County Counsel Shane Stark said they had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment. The suit stems from Cruz’s arrest after a shooting at Santa Barbara Parking Lot 10 on Jan. 26, 1997. Two groups of young men–some Oxnard gang members–exchanged taunts in the parking structure at Anacapa and Ortega streets, and one of the men pulled a gun. Michael Torres, a 23-year-old Santa Barbara resident, died of a gunshot wound to the head. Santa Ynez resident James Miranda, 21 at the time, was seriously injured but recovered. Cruz, the only one to not flee the scene, was arrested, and police found a chrome .38-caliber revolver. Forensic tests revealed that Cruz had gunpowder residue on his hands, and a driver leaving the parking structure identified him as the shooter. Prosecutors charged Cruz and three others–including Cruz’s cousin, Gerardo Reyes–with murder. One suspect pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, and Reyes and the other suspect were released for lack of evidence. Cruz was the only one to stand trial. According to Cruz’s lawsuit, Santa Barbara authorities had evidence favorable to Cruz before his trial, but failed to turn it over to the defense. That evidence included other witnesses’ statements to police suggesting that Reyes was the shooter. Although Cruz denied shooting Torres and Miranda, jurors found him guilty of murder and attempted murder, and in January 1998, he was sentenced to 41 years to life in prison. A year later, Oxnard Police Det. Dennis McMaster received a tip from an informant that Reyes was the Lot 10 shooter. At the request of Santa Barbara authorities, Ventura County prosecutors investigated and arranged an undercover meeting between the informant and Reyes, who were members of the same Oxnard gang. During a conversation secretly tape-recorded, Reyes admitted to the shooting. Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury wrote a letter to Sneddon stating that based on new evidence, “we have concluded that Gerardo Reyes, not Efren Cruz, killed Michael Torres.” However, Santa Barbara prosecutors stood by their conviction of Cruz. But Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa, ruling after a 26-day hearing, concluded that there was credible evidence that Reyes was the shooter, not Cruz, and ordered him released. According to the lawsuit, prosecutors abandoned their obligation to investigate the case after new evidence came to light. They also conspired to discredit Reyes’ confession and keep Cruz in prison, the suit says. As a result, Cruz suffered humiliation, depression and emotional distress requiring psychological counseling, according to the lawsuit. Cruz was out of town and could not be reached for comment. But Adela Reyes, his mother, said the lawsuit was not about money as much as sending a message to Santa Barbara authorities. “People make mistakes,” Reyes said. “They had the opportunity to say they made a mistake. But they are still saying Efren was the real shooter. Hopefully this will open their eyes.” * Times staff writer David Rosenzweig contributed to this story. Source: Related Docs:

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