The conduct uncovered by the Vanguard during its four-month investigation into particulars surrounding the trial and conviction of Andres Cordova was troubling. But more troubling is the fact that the circumstances surrounding this case were eerily similar to another case we covered involving the same Deputy DA – Michael Vroman.
We go back to the prosecution of Justin Gonzalez, who was convicted of second degree murder in December 2017 and sentenced to 70 years to life last February.
In that case, where the Vanguard believes Mr. Gonzalez was wrongly convicted of murder, the judge went forth with the sentencing as he acknowledged being troubled that he was holding a CD with a recording that the defense did not have access to during the trial.
In that case the key witness, Ruby Aradoz, had flipped-flopped on her statements as to whether Justin Gonzalez was involved in the murder. When she finally copped to her own culpability and agreed to testify, she became a critical witness because she was one of two people who could place Mr. Gonzalez at the scene of the actual murder.
The problem is that during her grand jury testimony she did not implement Mr. Gonzalez. However, in a recorded interview by Detective Sergio Pimentel with Ruby Aradoz prior to her testimony, she did.
Defense Attorney Keith Staten argued, “My cross-examination was done without knowledge of any new statement.”
Deputy DA Michael Vroman had had a conversation with defense prior to the trial, letting them know that they routinely re-interview witnesses prior to their testimony to flag inconsistencies. Mr. Staten maintains that Mr. Vroman, who apparently was not fully aware of the content of the statement himself, had represented to him that her testimony would be similar to what she had testified to previously.
However, while during a September 21 interview she had claimed Justin Gonzalez had a knife, during her Grand Jury testimony, she did not say that.
Mr. Staten argued that it is not up to the prosecution to decide what information is exculpatory or relevant and therefore he should have had this information prior to cross-examining her.
Judge Dan Maguire questioned Mr. Vroman as to why he wasn’t required to turn over a copy of the recorded statement under Penal Code section 1054.1. Mr. Vroman stated that under 1054.1 there is the stipulation about “if it is in the possession of the prosecuting attorney or if the prosecuting attorney knows it to be in the possession of the investigating agencies.”
He told the judge, “I did not know it was recorded.”
Judge Maguire accepted Mr. Vroman’s statement and account of what happened. He also ultimately determined that the witness had been thoroughly discredited anyway – but if that’s the case, what was the evidence pointing to Mr. Gonzalez’s guilt in the case? Flawed and inconsistent testimony by another witness who had something to gain?
It is a troubling ruling, but one wonders if Judge Maguire would have been so quick to give the prosecutor the benefit of the doubt if he knew that less than a year earlier, Mr. Vroman had a similar situation – also involving a high profile life case where he had similar exculpatory evidence and also sat on it.
In the case of Andres Cordova, the testimony of his girlfriend was critical because, while there was circumstantial evidence that Mr. Cordova had arranged for a fight with the victim, there was no direct evidence tying him to the shooting. There was no gun, no identification at the scene, and no physical evidence that tied him to the scene.
But the testimony of the girlfriend confirmed the timeline, plus she testified to hearing a metallic sound that could have been a gun.
The defense in this case also found themselves without impeachment evidence because, once again, Michael Vroman chose to hide it from them.
Defense attorney John Sage points out that “the prosecuting attorney was aware of what happened between herself and Officer Luttrell. She further states that the prosecutor said he would not allow this information in court. The defense never received a memorandum of this conversation between the prosecutor and (the witness).
“The reason the investigation was so sloppy in the instant case, we believe, is because the Woodland Police Department had something to hide. Therefore, they did not follow evidence that pointed to someone other than Mr. Cordova. And, making sure that Mr. Cordova was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, fit in with their agenda to cover up the actions of Officer Luttrell,” Mr. Sage added.
In this case, Mr. Vroman’s defense against prosecutorial misconduct rests on two key points. Mr. Vroman in court denied being told that the witness had sex with Officer Luttrell.
Mr. Vroman told the court, “She never told me she had an affair with any member of the Woodland Police Department. What she told me was that there was information that she – that she knew the defendant was aware of that, would be embarrassing, and that we wouldn’t want to come out.”
In addition, he challenged whether this was new evidence. He argued that because the defendant knew of the material, it was not newly discovered evidence and thus could not be the basis of a new trial.
Of course this is not an actual defense of the prosecutor, because he had the duty to turn over such evidence to the defense – and had no way of knowing at the point at which he found out this evidence whether it was new or not.
Here Judge Dave Reed didn’t help matters. The appellate brief argues that the trial court “abused its discretion in denying the motion” on the basis “that the evidence was not newly discovered,” arguing that “there is nothing in the record that indicates a lack of reasonable diligence on the part of appellant or his trial counsel in not discovering prior to or during the trial.”
The appellate attorney argues, “The court’s belief that appellant knew about the impeachment material because he knew of text messages from Officer Luttrell to [girlfriend] was incorrect. These text messages were never shown and there is no way to know if they identified the sender as Officer Luttrell.”
The appellate brief makes the point that Mr. Sage offered to put Mr. Cordova on the stand to testify to the fact that he did not know that the witness had a sexual encounter with Officer Luttrell.
In two cases, then, with in a few months of each other, Deputy DA Michael Vroman is accused of withholding evidence from the defense. In both cases it was critical impeachment evidence of the main witness against the defendant, and in both cases his defense would be that he did not know about the evidence and that, even if he did, it was not relevant information.
In both cases as well – he got away it because the judge did not hold him accountable.
Innocent Project reports have repeatedly cited prosecutorial misconduct, specifically withholding exculpatory evidence, disclosable under Brady, as a leading cause of wrongful convictions. The same literature shows that judges rarely hold prosecutors accountable for the failure to turn over such evidence.
Given that and the degree of deference given to statements made by prosecutors, why isn’t it in their best interest to withhold the evidence?
—David M. Greenwald reporting