Wrongfully convicted San Jose man to receive $1 million settlement from Santa Clara County

By Tracey Kaplan

tkaplan@mercurynews.com

Posted: 08/15/2009 06:13:56 AM PDT

Updated: 08/15/2009 06:58:23 AM PDT

Locked up for an armed robbery he didn’t do, East San Jose resident Jeffrey Rodriguez spent five years dodging violent prison inmates and praying to be rescued.

His wish eventually came true — the charges were dismissed and a judge found him factually innocent. But no one in the criminal justice system ever made amends — until this month, when he’ll get the closest thing to an apology: $1 million in taxpayer money from Santa Clara County.

The pending settlement brings the total paid by the county for wrongful convictions by the District Attorney’s Office since 2005 to more than $4.6 million.

The money won’t make up for missing five years of his 11-year-old son’s life, getting beaten up in jail or losing his girlfriend. But after paying attorney fees, Rodriguez hopes to have enough left to buy property in the Central Valley, help out family members who sold a home to pay his legal expenses, and open a barber shop.

“I’m not angry,” Rodriguez said in an interview this week in attorney Jaime Leanos’ office. “I’m not going to waste energy being mad. That would lock up my mind and I want to be free.”

He said he got through the ordeal by speaking to his family on the telephone as often as possible from Corcoran State Prison and practicing his religion.

“I just read the bible and God’s word spoke to me in my heart,” Rodriguez said. “God lets things happen for a reason, I understand that. I just hoped it would end soon, and thank God it did.”

 The District Attorney’s Office referred all questions about the settlement agreement to the County Counsel’s Office, which declined to comment. In settling the case, the county is not admitting any of the allegations, which include negligence, suppression of evidence and witness tampering.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, lays out the history of the case: how the jury in Rodriguez’s first trial voted 11-1 to acquit him of the robbery at a Kragen auto parts loading dock, his subsequent conviction in a second trial and how the appellate court overturned that conviction because of a poor performance by his trial attorney.

It goes on to explain how prosecutors under newly elected District Attorney Dolores Carr decided not to retry Rodriguez a third time because of doubts about the identification of him by victim Carmelo Ramirez. In addition, the only physical evidence in the case — then-crime lab chief Mark Moriyama’s testimony about his analysis of a motor oil stain on Rodriguez’s pants — was contradicted by outside analysts, including the state Department of Justice.

Moriyama is still assigned to the crime lab, but he works with breath-alcohol instruments and does not give expert testimony in court, according to Nick Muyo, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office.

Muyo said the crime lab also has made changes in the way test results are reported “to avoid the potential of misleading or overstating the test results.” District Attorney Carr assigned her top aide, Chief Assistant District Attorney Marc Buller, to work as the laboratory liaison, and more training is now provided for both prosecutors and defense attorneys “so that they will have a better appreciation for limitations of the labs’ analyses and its reporting language,” Muyo said.

Rodriguez’s case was highlighted in the 2006 Mercury News series “Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice” as an example of how poor lawyering and unreliable eyewitness identification can lead to wrongful convictions.

The federal suit also contains new allegations about how Rodriguez came to be wrongly convicted. The lawsuit alleges that Deputy District Attorney John Luft improperly withheld potentially helpful evidence — namely, that robbery victim Ramirez had been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence, which denied Rodriguez’s attorney an opportunity to use the information in an attempt to impeach him as a witness.

Luft did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit also alleges Luft coaxed Ramirez during the second trial into falsely testifying that the jacket worn by the robber, as seen on a surveillance video of the loading dock, was the same as a leather jacket confiscated from Rodriguez’s house. Ramirez has signed a statement in which he says he felt pressured to tailor his story to match the police and prosecution’s insistence on what the robber was wearing. Ramirez could not be reached for comment.

In exchange for the settlement, Rodriguez has agreed to forgo legal action against Moriyama, Luft and Ramirez.

Rodriguez is still waiting to hear whether the state Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board will award him the standard $100-a-day payment for those who are wrongfully incarcerated — $138,100 in his case.

Even if he gets the additional funds, he’s not planning to splurge on a celebration.

“I just want to take it slow and soak it in,” he said, “and try to make the wisest, soundest decisions I can.”

Contact Tracey Kaplan at tkaplan@mercurynews.com or 408-278-3482.

Wrongful-conviction settlements

2005: $875,000
to Glenn Nickerson, imprisoned 19 years for a murder he did not commit.

2007: $2.75 million
to Rick Walker, who spent 12 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit.

April 2009: $50,000
to Kenneth Foley, who served 11 years for a robbery he did not commit.

Pending: $1 million
to Jeffrey Rodriguez, who was locked up five years for an armed robbery he did not commit.

Total: $4,675,000

 

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One Response to “Wrongfully convicted San Jose man to receive $1 million settlement from Santa Clara County”

  1. rockwell review Says:

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