A Los Angeles County judge on Tuesday ordered the immediate release of a man who has served 20 years behind bars for a Compton shooting he didn’t commit.
Moments after walking out of a downtown L.A. courtroom as a free man, Marco Contreras offered a message to others in his situation.
“Keep fighting,” he said in Spanish. “Be patient and keep fighting.”
Contreras, 41, who maintained his innocence, was convicted of attempted robbery and attempted murder in 1997 for a shooting at a Compton gas station a year earlier. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Superior Court Judge William Ryan ruled last week that Contreras was factually innocent, and the district attorney’s office agrees.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Bobby Grace said Tuesday that the office lost faith in Contreras’ conviction, adding that other men have been arrested and charged in connection with the crime.
Attempted murder and conspiracy charges were filed Thursday against Antonio Salgado, 41; Antonio Garcia, 61; and Ricardo Valencia, 46. Both Garcia and Valencia pleaded not guilty Monday, and Salgado hasn’t been arraigned.
Contreras’ attorneys say an eyewitness inaccurately identified him as the gunman she’d seen at the gas station. But really, they say, Contreras was at home sleeping at the time.
His case is an example of the unreliability — and dangers — of witness misidentification, said Adam Grant, one of Contreras’ attorneys.
“This is a huge problem,” he said. “It’s a thorny problem because the public considers it reliable.”
Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent began looking into the case in 2012 after a law school graduate put them in touch with Contreras’ family. During their investigation, lawyers and students found new evidence, including a striking physical similarity between Contreras and Salgado. The team of attorneys then presented its findings to the district attorney’s conviction review unit — a crew of prosecutors and investigators dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions — which conducted its own investigation, along with sheriff’s investigators, into the shooting.
Contreras’ release is the second big reversal handled by the unit. Last year, prosecutors asked the same judge to throw out the murder conviction of a man charged in the 2000 slaying of a college student in a Palmdale parking lot. Earlier this year, Ryan threw out the conviction and declared Raymond Lee Jennings factually innocent.
As he was escorted into court Tuesday, Contreras — dressed in a black suit — turned to look at his family in the audience. He nodded at them several times, and tears welled in his eyes.
At the end of the hearing, he stood to address the judge.
“I’d like to thank you for allowing me to be here,” he said. “Also the D.A. — I’d like to say thank you to everybody.”
Ryan smiled and told Contreras he hoped he had a good support system to help him adjust to life outside of custody. The world, the judge warned him, had changed a lot in 20 years.
“This is a new chapter,” the judge said. “Good luck to you, sir.”
The audience of Loyola students and Contreras’ family burst into applause, shouting, “Woo! Woo! Woo!” Contreras threw his fist in the air in celebration, and the courtroom bailiff smiled.
During a news conference after the hearing, Contreras’ mother, Maria, walked slowly toward her son. She embraced him in a tight hug and congratulated him in Spanish.
“¡Felicidades, hijo!” she told him. “¡Felicidades, mi hijo!”
She told reporters she’d always known he was innocent, saying before his arrest in this case he’d never gotten in trouble — not even a traffic ticket, she said.
Asked whether he felt any rancor, Contreras shook his head: “No, none. There’s no reason.”
For now, he said, the main thing on his mind was a craving for good Mexican food.
For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber