County of Conviction: Riverside
Convicted of: Murder
Sentence: 15 years to life
Years Served: 19 years
Released: December 3, 2014
No one, including Jason Rivera, could have predicted how the events on the night of March 18, 1994 would forever change the course of so many lives, especially for two prominent families in Riverside. That fateful night, a fight at a high school party held in upper-class Riverside turned deadly over a girl.
Dominic Luna, a football player at Poly High School attacked Jason Rivera, a recent graduate of Poly High who was attending the party with his sister, Jennifer. It was Jennifer’s birthday and the party was, in part, a celebration for her. The fight erupted because Dominic felt that Jason was not treating one of his friends respectfully because Jason had dumped her and moved on to other girls. Bouncers at the party broke up the fight and both Dominic and Jason were asked to leave. They did so.
Not long afterwards, Jason made the fateful decision to take his sister back to the party and drop her off so that she could continue to celebrate her birthday. She had promised to be waiting outside when he returned to pick her up an hour later.
When he returned, Jennifer was not outside. Jason decided to go into the party and get her. Accompanied by his friends Richard and Paul, as well as Richard’s friend, Manuel, Jason headed towards the party.
As they walked, Dominic pulled up in a car behind the boys, jumped out, and attacked Jason again. Jason fell in between two parked cars and Dominic got on top of him, punching him and giving him a concussion. When others tried to intervene, Dominic’s brother, Albert, held them back. Jason yelled for help from his friends. Richard suddenly yelled “blast ‘em” and Manuel shot Dominic and Albert. Dominic was seriously injured and Albert died almost immediately.
Police later arrested Jason, Paul, Richard, and Manuel for murder and attempted murder under the theory that the four boys had conspired to come back to the party and exact revenge on Dominic. Only Jason and Manuel were ultimately prosecuted, convicted of the crime, and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
The case against Jason largely rested on testimony from one eyewitness who said they heard Jason yell “blast ‘em” right before those fatal shots were fired. This testimony was a critical component in establishing conspiracy to commit murder. After all, the only way Jason would know to say those words is if he knew Manuel had a gun and if he knew Manuel would use it.
It was not until after his conviction that Richard admitted to uttering those words and further admitted that Jason had no knowledge Manuel had a gun – only he and Manuel knew. Manuel confirmed this fact to the California Innocence Project. In fact, prior to that night, Jason had never met Manuel.
Because of this evidence, two law students, Alissa Bjerkhoel (’06) and Raquel Cohen (’07) of the California Innocence Project, became particularly vested in Jason’s case. Year after year, they investigated his case, leaving no stone unturned. They tried to litigate his case in the courts, to no avail. Whatever helpful information Richard and Manuel had to provide was not enough to get Jason’s conviction reversed. After all, disproving whether Jason had some sort of particular knowledge in the post-conviction context after a jury of twelve of his peers found him guilty was literally an impossible feat. So, they focused on the possibility of parole.
Over the years spent in prison, Jason grew and matured. Alissa and Raquel stood by his side, visiting him, encouraging him, and helping him to grow as they matured into lawyers themselves. Years passed and Jason no longer was the cocky soccer player from Poly High who felt victimized by the justice system and who was angry because he felt he should not have been convicted. Now, he hurt deeply for the victims and their families and, although he was not the one who pulled the trigger, he felt responsible for the tragedy that befell the Luna family. Jason was grateful he still had his own life, even if it was one behind bars, and he was resigned to spending the entirety of his life there. After all, he should never have made the decision to come back to the party. Had he made the simple decision not to come back, Albert would still be alive and his family would not have suffered so greatly for all these years.
Living with that guilt, Jason did everything in his power to become a better person. And he did so, step by step and day by day. Jason has become a truly remarkable human being. So remarkable had he become that the victims’ next of kin supported a parole date for him. Finally, in June of 2014, the Parole Board granted Jason a parole date and he was released on December 3, 2014.
It is amazing to think over 20 years have passed since that fateful night. And over 8 have passed since Alissa and Raquel committed themselves to his release. If one can learn any lesson from Jason, Alissa, and Raquel, they should learn that, when you believe in someone, you never give up and that things will work themselves out in the end, if you continue to believe.