Orange County Knowingly Imprisoned An Innocent 14-Year-Old For 2 Years
May 17, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Immunity corrupts. Absolute immunity corrupts absolutely. At least, that has been a recurring theme in Orange County, where the rights of criminal defendants are almost as important as closing ranks when a police officer brutally beat a defense attorney in a courthouse hallway. Almost as important as discrediting the man whose tireless work led to the discovery of a wide-spread conspiracy to plant informants near defendants cells to solicit confessions from them.
According to The Intercept, that indifference led a two-year jail term for a 14-year-old boy who was innocent of any wrongdoing. And prosecutors knew.
Three teenagers were shot in a residential neighborhood by a man in an SUV, who asked them for their gang affiliation before opening fire. While they could not identify the gunman, two of them did identify Luis Francisco Vega, a boy who had beaten one of them only months earlier. Despite ample grounds for skepticism, including the fact that Vega lived 120 miles away, the police took the boys at their word.
The lead detective, Andy Alvarez, found Vega at a relative’s house in Palm Springs and began interrogating him. Vega cried and declared his innocence. But he was held on a million dollar bond, which might as well have been a trillion, for all his chances of getting out and going back to school before his trial started.
When the time came for a preliminary hearing, there was a potential problem. This shooting was allegedly gang-related. The boys were shot at because they were likely members of the “Highland Street” gang, and the shooter had yelled “Delhi” as he drove away. But Vega had no known affiliation with any gangs.
Fortunately, police officers are given wide latitude to provide their expertise on such matters. The judge agreed that Vega must be in a gang, because the officer said that he “Vega knew more about the gang than he was letting on.” From Detective Alvarez, this was more than enough, especially since he was an “analytical thinking” instructor.
Less than two weeks into Vega’s jail term, prosecutors learned from a jailhouse informant, Juan Calderon, that another boy, a seventeen-year-old named Alvaro Sanchez, had confessed to him that he had been the shooter. That Vega had not been anywhere near the scene.
In theory, the prosecutor handling the case had a duty to turn that information over to defense counsel. A competent defense attorney could turn something like that into a substantially reduced bond. Maybe even a dismissal, or a plea that his client could live with even if it didn’t happen to be true. But the prosecutor, Steven Schriver, didn’t bring it to defense counsel’s attention. He feared that the informant’s identity would be compromised, and that it would hurt his usefulness in other cases.
In fact, the information only came to light as the rest of the Orange County snitching scandal was busting wide open. Public defender Scott Sanders had uncovered a wide variety of informant files, including Calderon’s statement, and the statement of another informant, who recounted that:
Sanchez expressed bewilderment that Vega had been charged in connection with the crime, according to notes taken by Moriel, saying, “It’s kind of fucked up because this guy [Luis Vega] get’s popped for this case while the three other people who were actually there … were still out there.”
Without Sanders’ dogged, obsessive persistence, none of this would have come to light. In an effort to avoid the airing of all its dirty laundry, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office offered the actual shooter a mere sixteen-year sentence and quietly dismissed the charges against Vega without apology.
What this case reveals, yet again, is that in a system that fails to hold prosecutors accountable, to punish them when they do wrong, they will only ever be as good as their intentions. There are plenty of good prosecutors in the world, of course. But they’re only human. And yet we subject each of them to the Stanley Milgram experiment on a weekly basis.
In that experiment, of course, ordinary people were asked to shock participants who made a mistake recounting word pairs. Unbeknownst to the participants, the people they were shocking were actually actors, who would only fake injury and pain in response to the turning of the dial. A majority of people, asked to turn the dial to punish those who made small mistakes, were willing to impose the maximum amount of pain available, 450 volts of electricity.
They were willing to do this because they entered what Milgram called an “agentic state.” They believed that a legitimate authority was telling them to do something, and that that authority would ultimately take the blame for their actions. And this, in a nutshell, is the life or a prosecutor.
We put them in a fancy outfit. We tell them that they are doing justice. And we leave the person most likely to feel autonomously responsible for what happens in the courtroom—the District Attorney—to stew in an office filled with knick-knacks from European vacations while regaling interns with war stories.
Steven Schriver didn’t think that what he was doing was wrong, monstrous even. That by knowingly imprisoning an innocent child, he had crossed the thin line between ordinary prosecutorial indifference and cartoonish supervillainy. And that’s because we have a system that failed to make him understand. To give him examples to show we frown on this sort of thing.
Until we start to do that, we will find that prosecutors like Schriver will continue to turn the dial. For those without a strong moral compass, absolute immunity will ensure total indifference.