National Registry of Exonerations Grows Steadily, with Little Fanfare

About six weeks ago, the National Registry of Exonerations reached the milestone of  1,000. Today the tally is 1,033. Each added case is accompanied by a name, a photo, and the story of a life completely disrupted or virtually destroyed by a miscarriage of justice. As the number grows, it sounds a wake-up call ever louder, but the sheer numbers can also numb us to the human impact of each wrongful conviction and hard-won exoneration. A recently added name is Alfonso Gomez. His story sounds all too familiar, and the lack of attention in the media may be an indication that cases like this are no longer particularly newsworthy.

Maurice Possley, a pioneering journalist in wrongful conviction, detailed Gomez’s case for the Registry’s profile (here). The California Innocence Project also reported on it (here). But a Google search revealed little mainstream media attention, other than a report from the local ABC Los Angeles affiliate (here).

Gomez was convicted in California on May 15, 1998, of the 1996 gang-related drive-by shooting that killed 21-year-old Martha Gonzalez. His conviction was based upon the identification of several witnesses in the car who said the bullets were fired by members of a rival gang.

When shown photos of the rival gang members, the witnesses thought that Gomez looked similar to the shooter. A careful read of Possley’s report would indicate that witnesses got a second look at Gomez, this time in a “show up” of sorts. Gomez had been charged with another drive-by shooting and an armed robbery. The witnesses from the car that carried Gonzalez, came to the courtroom where Gomez faced the unrelated charges. This time they identified him positively.

Gomez was convicted of all three crimes and sentenced to 41 years to life in prison. From the moment of arrest through his sixteen years in prison, Gomez proclaimed his innocence.  In 2010 an investigation of another 1996 cold case murder uncovered a gun that matched the ballistics of the one used in the shooting of Gonzalez. It was just one piece of evidence that supported Gomez’s innocence.

Gomez’s attorney, armed with the new evidence, asked Orange County Superior Court Judge David Hoffer to vacate the murder conviction. He complied. At the same time the judge re-sentenced Gomez for the two other convictions to the 16 years he had already served. Evidence of this miscarriage of justice was so evident that both the district attorney and the Santa Ana police supported Gomez’s release.

Los Angeles ABC affilate KABC-TV aired the emotional comments of Gomez’s daughters, Alyssa, 20, and Alexa, 16, who have waited the past sixteen years for their father’s release from prison.

Gomez, one of 1033 on the Registry of Exonerations today, raised to 119 the number of exonerations in California, closely followed by Texas with 114; Illinois, with 110; and New York with 99. The eyewitness process that led to his identification violated today’s best practices and common sense.

On September 22 of this year in the report “A Case of Short Cuts,” I commented on another similar California case involving a former gang member John Edward Smith, convicted of a drive-by murder solely on the testimony of one witness, who later recanted.  Smith was also released after serving 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Perhaps we’ve seen so many of these cases that they are no longer newsworthy. Perhaps some are more newsworthy than others. The lack of interest in some miscarriages of justice may relate to attitudes that contributed to the convictions in the first place.

Our diligence in justice must be the same for all, including those who may be viewed by someone in authority as of lesser economic, social, or cultural position. While a person’s associations may raise suspicion, it’s a slippery slope to go to “easy targets,” to rush to judgment, and to pursue a tunnel vision investigation. Unfortunately, these error-prone attitudes and tactics are fueled by common human shortcomings, heavy case loads, and expediency. That’s why every police department in the nation should enthusiastically embrace best practices in criminal justice procedure, from investigation through interrogation and arrest.

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