By David M. Greenwald
Santa Ana, CA – The murder conviction of Ramon Alvarez was overturned by a US District Court Central District of California in March. In late May, Assistant Orange County DA Troy Pino wrote, “After a thorough review of the case, the Office of the Orange County District Attorney has elected not to retry Mr. Alvarez in this case.”
He added “the court must, by operation of law, vacate Mr. Alvarez’s conviction in this case.”
The case dates back to June 1998, when the body of Ruben Leal was discovered in a backyard house in Santa Ana; he had died as the result of a gunshot wound to the head.
The case was not resolved until 14 years later when Alvarez was convicted largely on the testimony of Craig Gonzales, a jailhouse informant who claimed that Alvarez had confessed that he had committed the crime.
The forensic pathologist who conducted Leal’s autopsy testified that people who commit suicide with a high-powered rifle normally place the muzzle under their chin, in their mouth, or at their abdomen. The pathologist had never seen anyone kill himself or herself by firing a rifle into the side of his or her head.
In January 1998, Gonzalez and Alvarez were housed at the Santa Ana jail.
According to a actual summary from the California Court of Appeal’s decision, “Gonzales testified that while in the Santa Ana jail, [Petitioner] told Gonzales he was in jail for a murder that happened at his girlfriend’s house. [Petitioner] said the victim was someone he knew, who “wasn’t supposed to be there and he knew better.””
It added, “[Petitioner] told Gonzales he had shot the victim in the head with an AK–47 rifle, then put the body in a shed with ice on it to keep it from smelling.”
At the heart of Alvarez’s claims were claims of Brady and Napue violations, that “the State presented the testimony of Craig Gonzales, a jailhouse informant and the State’s most important witness, without disclosing that Gonzales had been promised payment for his testimony and that he had a history of prior informant work.”
In the report and recommendation by the US Magistrate Judge, submitted to Judge Dolly Gee, in a declaration, in July 2018, Gonzales stated that “[i]n exchange for testifying against [Petitioner], Detective David Rondou told me that I would get paid, be moved to any prison that I wanted, and get a reduction on my sentence. Approximately four months after I had testified against [Petitioner], Detective Rondou visited me in prison and handed me a check for $11,000.”
In the second declaration, in September 2018, Gonzales stated that Detective Rondou promised him payment “without specifying the amount.”
Gonzales also stated that “Detective Rondou. . . instructed that if asked in court whether I was going to receive any benefit for my testimony, that I should say no. Approximately four months after I had testified against [Petitioner], Detective Rondou visited me in prison and handed me a check for $11,000.”
The report found, ““Gonzales lied when he testified at the retrial that Petitioner had confessed to the murder.” And, “although Gonzales and Petitioner did share a cell, Petitioner did not make the statements that Gonzales attributed to him at the retrial.”
The compensation and prison transfer “were a big motivation for Gonzales’s testimony.” They said that Gonzales said he is coming forward now “because he feels guilty” and Gonzales’s recantation means that he “has lied under oath on at least one occasion.
The report found that “Detective Rondou offered Gonzales benefits for testifying against Petitioner: a prison transfer, compensation, and a sentence reduction.” And that “Detective Rondou instructed Gonzales to say “no” if he was asked about being given or promised anything for his testimony.”
It goes on to note, “Gonzales testified at the evidentiary hearing that Detective Rondou promised him money before Petitioner’s retrial. In contrast, Detective Rondou testified that he gave Gonzales the check after Petitioner’s retrial had ended, which was the “first time [Gonzales] ever knew there was money involved.”
The report finds, “A reasonable factfinder would not credit Detective Rondou’s testimony about the money to Gonzales, for multiple reasons.” They note, that his testimony was “implausible because no evidence corroborated his testimony…” Second, “significant parts of Detective Rondou’s testimony were contradicted by other witnesses, not just Craig Gonzales.”
Third, “Detective Rondou’s statements about why he arranged for the payment were contradicted by objective medical evidence.”
In sum, “Detective Rondou’s testimony about the money is not credible and not entitled to any weight. His testimony that the City of Santa Ana gave the money to Gonzales for his burial expenses, only after the retrial was over and after discussions involving multiple people, was “without corroboration from any independent source and was flatly contradicted by numerous witnesses.””
Critics of the informant scandal believe that every case involving Rondou should be reviewed. He was a focus of a Motion to Dismiss filed by Public Defender Scott Sanders in the Dekraii case that uncovered the scandal.
This is now the fifth case since that scandal broke that has been vacated as the result of his actions.
On September 24, 2014, Isaac Palacios pled guilty to one count of second degree murder and was immediately released on probation after being incarcerated since 2011. He was facing two counts of special circumstance murder pertaining to two unrelated homicides.
Prosecutors in that case failed to turn over evidence of a Massiah violation related to statements obtained from Fernando Perez, and held back hundreds of notes from Perez and informant Oscar Moriel (who also obtained statements from Palacios).
The withheld notes documented evidence of third party culpability. Hidden recordings uncovered in Dekraai, captured Moriel offering to trade improved memories about Palacios murder in exchange for consideration on his case. The recordings occurred in 2009, but were not turned over until 2014.
On February 5, 2015, Leonel Vega pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and a firearm enhancement in the killing of Giovani Onofre.
But, Vega’s special circumstances murder conviction from 2010 was vacated in 2014 after evidence presented in Dekraai showed that significant Brady evidence was withheld.
The undisclosed evidence included notes that would have shown a Massiah violation, as well as recordings from jail, held by Santa Ana Police, which captured Moriel offering to trade improved memories for consideration on his case.
Additionally, the prosecution never disclosed recorded conversations with Moriel and Vega in which the defendant said he did not commit the crime. Vega could be released in as soon as 3 years.
In January of 2018, both parties agreed to stipulate to granting Ricardo Lopez’s writ of habeas corpus on his 2002 murder case. A note written by Moriel containing exculpatory evidence had not been obtained after the conviction, but was not turned over until 2014 when we included an analysis of the case in People v. Dekraai.
Lopez’s murder conviction was vacated. He pled to lesser charges and will be released in approximately four years.
Finally, in June 2019, Henry Cabrera’s life sentence of 33 to life was vacated and was sentenced to a determinate sentence of 24 years in his 2017 carjacking case for the benefit of the Highland Street gang, with the use of a firearm. However, Rondou testified in separate murder case testified Cabrera was a member of a rival gang, Delhi.