On November 30th, Alfonso Gomez was cleared of a 1996 murder after detectives investigating another case found evidence of his innocence. An Orange County judge dismissed the murder case against him that led a life sentence in prison. Upon his release, Gomez was reunited with his two daughters. The 38-year-old former gang member was convicted of murdering 21-year-old Martha Gonzalez in 1996 during a gang-related shooting in Santa Ana after several witnesses identified Gomez as the shooter. Gomez told reporters that “I’ve been waiting for this day,” he said. “I always knew it would come, I just didn’t know when.”
This is a rare case where the district attorney’s office took steps to release a wrongfully convicted inmate after finding evidence of actual innocence. Deputy District Attorney Larry Yellin said new evidence uncovered by Santa Ana and Fullerton police detectives during a separate cold-case investigation into a different gang-related killing cast “grave doubts” on the accuracy of the testimony from the two surviving witnesses of the late-night gunbattle. Without the eyewitness testimony, Yellin said, prosecutors can not proceed with a new trial. In addition, the District Attorney initiated steps for Gomez’ immediate release.
The May 12, 1996, slaying of Martha Gonzalez was one of those tragic gang encounters that began with several members of two rival gangs piling into two cars – the Honda Civic and a Nissan Maxima – in separate neighborhoods, according to Gambale’s motion, and reviews of his 1998 court file and the archives of The Orange County Register.
As destiny played out, the two cars started traveling side-by-side east on First Street in Santa Ana when the occupants of both cars first noticed each other. The cars were stuck together at three successive red lights, and at each stop, the tension between the two groups escalated. First, the occupants exchanged stares, known as “mad-dogging,” then taunts and challenges, and then – at First and Ross streets – guns came out.
The shooter or shooters in the Maxima fired several times, but all the shots pounded into the hard metal frame of the Civic. None the occupants was injured. But the shooter in the Civic was more deadly.
One of his shots struck Gonzalez, 21, in the head. She died as her friends raced to a hospital. Two other passengers suffered gunshot wounds but survived. The victims admitted they had ties to a Santa Ana street gang, police said, and they reported that the occupants of the Civic claimed a rival street gang: Evil Kids.
Santa Ana detectives assembled every available mugshot of known members or associates of the Evil Kids, according to Gambale’s motion. One of the photos was of Alfonso Gomez. When detectives showed the photo catalog to the surviving passengers in the Maxima, two of the victims picked him out. Gomez was also by then accused of a gang-related armed robbery in Westminster, where a Dallas Cowboys jersey was stolen, and a drive-by gang-shooting in Orange, where he was the driver when a rival was shot in the torso.
In November 1996, he was arrested and charged with all three gang incidents. He was adamant that he was not in the Honda Civic on May 12, 1996, Gambale’s motion said.
While Yellin did not specify what the new evidence was, the prosecutor’s immediate reaction indicates that a serious mistake was made. While the office’s actions should be commended, the next step should be an examination of how the error occurred in the first place. Was is related to the eyewitness identification procedures? Was it related to the investigation of gang-related shootings? Was is a mistake that requires reforms? With any wrongful conviction, regardless of who caught the error and the extent of the prosecutor’s cooperation, transparency is the key.