Tuesday will mark the 15th anniversary of the 2002 shooting deaths of Eric Folsom (age 17) and Robert Stepper (age 20) in Woodland. A jury in 2006 convicted Ernesto Arellano, Oscar Cervantes and James Olague of first-degree murder and attempted murder of two others. Mr. Arellano and Mr. Cervantes faced the death penalty but received life without parole, as did Mr. Olague.
New evidence emerged last week when a former prosecutor told the Vanguard that his co-counsel on the case, then-Deputy DA Jeff Reisig, may have coached a key witness to the shooting. Jessica Valdez was a young teenager when she became a victim in the case.
The prosecutor, who has asked not to be named, told the Vanguard, “I was the one who was going to cross-examine him (Cervantes) and the whole issue was whether or not one of the witnesses, one of the victims, could identify him before he testified.”
He said, “Right before Oscar testified, one of the victims of the shooting testified – but before she testified I walked up to my partner (now District Attorney Jeff Reisig), because we prosecuted these crimes together – I said, oh gosh, I hope she (expletive) remembers this… she can ID him.”
The prosecutor said, “I was shocked.”
The prosecutors said at the time that two things were going through his mind. “One, he’s joking – which is a bad joke,” he said.
He added that the reason he didn’t say anything “is because I was scared.”
He said, “Reisig at that point was intimidating everybody. He was making up lies about everybody in the office. He was accusing people of committing horrible crimes and spreading it through the office simply so he could destroy everybody’s reputation so he could rise to the top.”
This is not the first controversy in the Halloween Homicide case. Investigator Randy Skaggs would later allege that Mr. Reisig had violated his privacy, smeared his reputation and unfairly tried to fire him, for drawing defense attention to failure to turn over exculpatory evidence.
The evidence related to a witness claim to see the flash from a .22 caliber gun but, according to Mr. Skaggs’ report, it was not possible under the conditions of the crime.
In March of 2008, Investigator Rick Gore made headlines in Yolo County when he sent a letter accusing Jeff Reisig and the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office of ethical malfeasance. One of the charges was that the District Attorney’s Office withheld evidence of a gun flash test during the Halloween Homicide trial.
Mr. Gore at the time alleged, “Bruce Naliboff told me, in front of you, to ‘put a muzzle’ on Randy Skaggs for talking about this discovery issue. You and I had extensive email discussion about this. Lt. Skaggs was in the office when Dave Henderson had to order you to comply with the law and therefore discover the evidence.”
The guilty verdicts for at least two of the defendants in that case are in question. “By all accounts, the most shocking verdict was for Olague, whose conviction was mostly based on circumstantial evidence,” the Woodland Daily Democrat reported in June 2006.
Dwight Samuel, one of the defense attorneys, told the paper he was angry about the verdict. “(Olague) had a very good opportunity for success in this case and I’m quite disappointed in the verdict,” Mr. Samuel said, “But we have the opportunity now to appeal because there was not sufficient evidence to convict him.”
Attorney Rod Beede, who represented Mr. Cervantes, agreed, as Mr. Olague apparently merely stepped out of his house when he heard the commotion and got wrapped into the case.
But Mr. Beede believes his client is innocent of the charges as well. At a presentation last year for the Vanguard on Yolo County wrongful convictions, Mr. Beede said that in his long tenure as a defense attorney there have been a handful of cases in which, despite exhaustive investigation, he believed an innocent person was convicted. The case of Oscar Cervantes was one of them.
In its presentation, the Vanguard revealed causes of wrongful convictions, which include eyewitness misidentification, junk science, prosecutorial and government misconduct, jailhouse informants (or snitches), ineffective defense and false confessions.
He said that the one thing that didn’t happen in this case was a false confession. Oscar Cervantes, along with the other co-defendants, “were interviewed pretty exhaustively in this case. They denied their involvement in it from the beginning.”
Mr. Beede said, “Probably in the history of Yolo County, capital murder cases, there’s only been one example of a defendant who took the stand on his own behalf, subjected himself to total and complete examination and lost. That was Oscar Cervantes.”
The jury deliberated for 30 days during the guilt phase of this trial. At one point, he said, they were split 8-4 for acquittal.
There was an individual named Rudy Gonzalez, who the defense believed was either involved or knew who was involved in the shooting. However, the judge denied them the ability to call Mr. Gonzalez to the stand to put forward an alternate theory of the crime.
“Much more substantially than that,” Mr. Beede continued, “when eyewitness identification was a big issue – but there was a lot of debate as to whether calling a memory expert, an eyewitness identification expert, was something that a court should permit.”
They filed a motion to do that, retaining one of the most prominent eyewitness experts in the country to come and testify that the identification was false. The judge denied the motion to put this expert on the stand.
Mr. Beede noted that “subsequent to that, the Supreme Court has held that failure to put an eyewitness identification expert on the stand is ineffective assistance of counsel.” But they didn’t get that opportunity because the judge denied the motion.
Christina Marie Marten was barely 18 years old at the time and made a statement incriminating these defendants. She went to trial before the three main defendants went to trial. “She was offered a plea bargain, accessory after the fact, which basically was a time-served sentence if she would testify at Oscar’s trial to which she testified to a grand jury. When it came time for her to do that, she couldn’t bring herself to do it.”
Because of that she went to trial separately and was convicted and is now doing a life sentence without parole for a story she recanted.
“The eyewitness identification in this case was completely fabricated,” Mr. Beede said. “The two girls that were the survivors of these shootings had been shown Oscar’s picture at least a half dozen times.”
That apparently includes Ms. Valdez.
The former prosecutor, when asked, told the Vanguard that he still believes Mr. Cervantes was the shooter. But he added, “But that doesn’t make a difference if someone tuned up the witness to identify him.”
Rod Beede noted that at the time Oscar Cervantes had “virtually no criminal record” and “absolutely no record of violence.”
Oscar Cervantes reportedly has exhausted his appeals and his habeas. However, the Innocence Project may be taking up his case.
Come see the Vanguard Event – “In Search of Gideon” – which highlights some of the key work performed by the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office…