Monday Morning Thoughts: This Year I felt Like I Was Exonerated Too

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

When the jury verdict came in from Woodland—I had not been able to drive over quickly enough and so I watched it streaming video—and the jury found Justin Gonzalez not guilty of murder, I cried.

I’ve been doing this a long time.  I’m not a very emotional person in general.  This was the first time I actually cried at a jury verdict.

But this one hit pretty close to home.

Ten years ago this past summer, I first encountered Justin Gonzalez.  I stumbled on a multi-defendant gang preliminary about a supposed robbery of the 7-Eleven in Woodland.  That was a particularly bad case in that the charges were all trumped up, even some of the key prosecution witnesses thought so, and it went to trial four times before the defendants, including Gonzalez, took pleas.

When Gonzalez was released, his family attempted to get him transferred up to Oregon to get out of Woodland, but parole wouldn’t let him and he got caught up in this case.

Unlike the other cases we have covered over this year, I covered this from the time he was arrested until he was finally exonerated.  I was in contact with his family from the start.  I had a gut feeling.  I knew he would be wrongly convicted before he was ever convicted—I was right.  Despite spotty evidence at trial, he was convicted.

He was at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people.  And he was cooked.

But then his luck turned around.  State law changed.  It got him a new trial.  This time, the DA couldn’t just prove he was there and imply aiding and abetting because he was part of a gang, she actually had to prove his direct role.

It was not a close call.  There was new evidence.  The DNA was probably critical, because the idea that someone could bear hug a struggling and sweaty victim without getting blood or sweat on him did not pass the smell test and the DA was forced to argue possibilities rather than prove conduct beyond a reasonable doubt.

Justin Gonzalez was acquitted.  He is now listed in the Registry of Exonerations.  One of thousands of people who have been known to have been exonerated.  And as sobering as that listing is, it represents only the tip of the iceberg.

We have no idea how many people are innocent but have been convicted of crimes either through a jury trial, or even through a plea agreement.  One of the remarkable stats is that one-fifth of the known exonerations actually pleaded guilty, hoping to avoid worse punishment.

Why would someone do that?  It’s not hard to imagine.  Justin Gonzalez got 90 years to life in his wrongful conviction.  Had he plead guilty and testified against Alexis Velasquez, he might have been out after only a few.  He was punished because he exercised his constitutional right to a trial and denied his crime as an innocent man.  We call this the trial penalty—and it’s a real thing.

But something else weighs on me this December.  Later in the week, we will have what is expected to be the final hearing in the Ajay Dev Habeas Corpus, evidentiary hearing.  Ajay has been incarcerated since 2009.

I didn’t attend his trial, but I watched his sentencing and, after watching it, I created the Vanguard Court Watch to monitor and report on everyday injustices. He received 378 years in prison for a crime that I do not believe he committed.

For the past five years, we have seen his evidentiary hearing drag on and on.  COVID.  At least three prosecutors.  Two different attorneys for Dev.  And it might wrap, up at least for the hearings, this week.

Have his attorneys shown enough evidence to get Dev a new trial?  Between the pretext call that has been enhanced, the evidence of his trial attorney at the last hearing, and the number of witnesses who testified that the complaining witness admitted to fabricating the story in real time, there should be, but you never know.

We’ll find out.

Over the years, the Vanguard has identified at least 14 cases in Yolo County alone where we believe innocent people have been wrongly convicted of crimes.  Justin Gonzalez this year became the first to be exonerated.

But at the end of the day, Justin Gonzalez wasn’t the only one exonerated by this jury verdict.

For so long, I have been pointing out and screaming injustice that I must seem to many people be the little boy who cried wolf.  Even as the world has changed and we have started to recognize problems in the criminal legal system, I have often felt like the lone voice screaming out in the universe.

A friend of mine, who frees wrongly convicted in New York, earlier this year was telling me how he saw Jeff Reisig and Jonathan Raven, who is now about to retire, giving a talk and he felt they were pretty progressive.

Then he saw the coverage of the Dominguez trial when it was obvious to everyone what Dominguez needed rather than facing a trial, and my friend said, I thought Reisig was supposed to be progressive.  I said, nope, but he plays a good game.

It’s unmistakable to watch Robin Johnson, the deputy DA, ardently refuse to concede the obvious and fighting to preserve that conviction, and to see Steve Mount in Ajay Dev in October trying to puncture the aging Michael Rothchild and seeing the venerable attorney time and time again thwarting him to realize that there is something wrong with the system.

The best part of the jury verdict in Justin Gonzalez was that it was proof that it wasn’t just me.  There was something wrong with the system here in Yolo and unfortunately Justin Gonzalez was just the tip of the iceberg, and unfortunately he wasn’t the only one exonerated that day.  For the first time, I felt like I had been exonerated too.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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1 Comment

  1. Walter Shwe

    Jeff Reisig is conservative masquerading as a moderate just so he can get reelected. I have resided in Yolo County since 1994. I have never voted for him because I always knew he was bad news. He cares more for his conviction track record and singular power and authority over others than actual justice. He could care less if he railroads innocent people.

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