The Old Man and the Kid
Jesse McGowan, April 2003
News helicopters buzzed overhead and crowds of people lined the freeway overpasses as if to watch a parade. This was Los Angeles, 1993, and the afternoon's attraction came in the form of a white Ford Bronco traveling at an unimpressive 50 miles per hour. Inside the vehicle: hall of fame football star, O.J. Simpson, accused of double murder and on the run. But this spectacle was just a prelude to what would become the most publicized murder case in United States History. The trial cost over twenty million dollars to fight and defend. There were eleven defense attorneys and twenty-five for the prosecution. Nineteen television stations, eight radio stations, and twenty-three newspaper and magazines were represented throughout the trial (Jones Epilogue).
Around the same time in Los Angeles, another courtroom drama was unfolding to prosecute and father and son for conspiracy to commit murder. In 1994, Tito David Valdez Jr. and Sr. were convicted and handed life sentences. This time, no "dream team" of defense attorneys was ever assembled, police work was not scrutinized, witnesses were not investigated, and exculpatory evidence was not presented to the jury. But Valdez and O.J. do have something in common. Their cases suggest that issues of guilt and innocence are sometimes dependant upon the level of legal resources one has at their disposal. Few people have come to understand this more intimately than wife and mother, Maria Valdez.
Her family's story weaves through a thick web of FBI wiretaps, opportunistic attorneys, and debilitating injuries. However, for all of its complexities and tragic anecdotes, we are ultimately confronted with a story about the basic struggle for freedom.
Chain of Events
Maria, 55, is a strong and fiercely independent woman who speaks quickly with streaks of sarcasm. The last of nine children, Maria ran away from her home in Guadalajara, Mexico at the age of fifteen. She says her mother became pregnant with her by mistake and consequently didn't like her. In her early-twenties, she worked as a waitress in East Los Angeles by pretending to be Spanish instead of Mexican. Twenty-five years later, Maria was married with two sons, ages 16 and 23, and working the graveyard shift at an o-rings factory in Downey, California. Then everything changed.
In April of 1993, Downey Police charged Maria's elder son, David, of raping a very young woman who contacted him about becoming a dancer on his public access television show. Days later, Police entered Maria's home with a search warrant, looking for evidence. The officers told Maria to sit down and be quiet, and grabbed her younger son, Steven, whom they mistook for David. "I don't want you to put drugs in my house," Maria shouted defiantly. The officers confiscated dirty clothes and 30 videotapes from her son's room and left. "They didn't expect me to talk back," Maria says of that first confrontation.
Several months later, Downey Police returned to the house in an undercover sting operation, according to them, to uncover a plot by Valdez Jr. to intimidate the girl into not testifying against him in the pending rape trial. At this point, Valdez Jr. had been free on bail for eight months, continuing to host his FM radio and syndicated public access television shows. The senior detective of the Downey Police Department led the investigation. "He paid for this to happen, he just wanted to do something big before he retired," Maria speculates. During the trial, another officer testified that the senior investigator was going to retire in a week (859). During the sting operation, two men, an undercover police officer and an informant, visited Valdez Jr. at the house, posing as a mechanic and acquaintance from the night party scene, respectively. The informant wore a concealed wiretap as a surveillance team made up of Downey Police and FBI agents listened in from a van three houses down the street. In a conversation led by the informant, Valdez Jr. made incriminating statements that included "just whack the bitch."
According to police, the recorded statements signaled a clear intent by Valdez Jr. to have the girl killed. In court, Valdez Jr. admitted to discussing plans to intimidate the girl with the informant but that such plans, like the talk of "whacking" were never serious. In a declaration, Valdez Jr. stated, "We were bullshitting so I didn't take the conversation serious."
There is little doubt that Maria's son was very upset at the time. For nearly a month leading up to the sting operation, Valdez Jr. received threatening phone calls. The informant later admitted in court that Valdez Jr. received such a call during the sting operation. After being asked what he remembered happening right after the phone rang, the informant testified:
David, Jr. stating that there was a crank call, and it was probably the girl since she's been crank calling him before, you know, calling him, telling him he was going to go to jail. I giggled and said 'they have you on check. (390)
A short time later, Valdez Sr. and Steven Valdez returned to the house with food for Valdez Jr. but not for his unexpected guests. At some point, Valdez Jr. asked his father if he could borrow a gun that was kept in the attic. Valdez Sr. responded that he lent it to a relative so Valdez Jr. asked if he could borrow $100 to buy a gun from a man across the street. Senior agreed, bringing over a gun dealer who sold a handgun to Junior for $200, $100 which Senior gave in cash, to assist his son in the purchase.
Valdez Jr. said the gun was to be used by the informant for security at the door of his nightclub parties as well as for self-protection in light of the threatening phone calls. Police said the gun was bought to kill the girl and that the father was also culpable for his role in the gun's purchase.
Valdez Jr. then drove off with the undercover police officer and informant, according to Valdez Jr. to buy beer, and according to police, to scope out the girl's house. Halfway down the street, police pulled the car over and pretended to arrest everyone. Police called Valdez Sr. from the station to pick up his son who they said they wrongly suspected of stealing the car. Upon arrival, he was met by the Downey Police lead investigator and handcuffed, his son Steven waiting outside in the car. "The arrest of Tito was very cowardly, they wouldn't even come here to get my husband. I had to go pick up Steven from the police parking lot." Maria remembers.
Maria's life tilted upside down. In an instant, she faced the need to hire lawyers, look after Steven, and somehow keep her family together. Without her husband's income as a Rockwell mechanic of 30 years, she took overtime shifts and pushed herself to the point of exhaustion. At one point, the telephone bill alone was $600. Maria describes the situation:
It was a chaotic time. I just didn't know what to do. I was so worried about Steven at that time. His grades fell and I couldn't be there to help him. His father used to help him with his homework. I was worried they would go after him to. The newspapers said I just attacked the DA instead of pushing for leniency. Sometimes I blame myself.
The Date-Rape Trial
"I know he didn't rape that girl, I know he didn't." Maria says today. There is reason to question the guilty verdict. For one thing, jurors were likely prejudiced by testimony from the undercover police officer in the subsequent sting operation. He testified that Valdez Jr. had recently been arrested for conspiring to kill the girl in an effort to stop her from testifying in the pending rape trial. Valdez Jr. must be guilty if he tried to prevent her from testifying-the reasoning goes.
Prosecutors had no physical evidence that Valdez Jr. was guilty of rape, despite the fact that Valdez Jr. had voluntarily submitted to DNA and saliva tests. Valdez Jr. was charged with sexual intercourse by means of force, violence, and duress. According to the victim, Valdez Jr's father and brother were sitting in the living room while the alleged crime was being committed, next door to Junior's room and separated by a thin wall. But they heard no struggle, no noise at all. The victim also testified that the crime went on for three hours. Valdez Sr. and Steven estimated that the two were in the room for ten to fifteen minutes. According to the preliminary hearing, a medical examiner found no evidence of injury to the girl (Preliminary 72).
The testimony of the police officer involved in the sting operation was pivotal. The judge cautioned the jury, explaining to them that Valdez Jr. was only charged with conspiracy to murder and that they should not let an untried case influence their decision. But according to Judge Robert W. Armstrong, the damage had been done. He stated in a 1995 re-sentencing hearing: The officer, who was the so-called hit man who testified in this case actually sealed up Mr. Valdez's fate in this trial. Any chance he had of a jury finding a reasonable doubt was obviously gone as soon as this officer testified that he had tried to kill the prosecution witness or to have her killed, and which was such overwhelming evidence of his guilt, that because an innocent person wouldn't take such action, so the jury did take that into consideration. (14)
Valdez Jr.'s girlfriend of seven years testified to his strong character, but to no avail. She also helped Maria find legal help.
In preparation for the conspiracy trial, Maria set out to obtain the best legal defense for her husband and son but she would have done better with a public defender. Johnny Cochran told her, "You don't even want to know how much I charge." She approached the Law Offices of Robert Shapiro and was told she needed $960 just to see him and $100,000 as a retainer fee. Falling deep into debt, she decided to pay the price. From the Shapiro Law Firm, a young attorney named Karen Filipi was assigned. But Filipi quickly became pre-occupied with another case the Shapiro Firm had just taken on-that of O.J. Simpson. Filipi would appear on television in a supporting role for the "dream team" but spared very little time to meet with her client, Valdez Jr. In fact, her only pre-trial contact with Valdez Jr. was for five minutes, instructing him to admit to wanting to kill the girl.
Filipi admitted to neglecting her client and asked to be dismissed from the case. She stated in a declaration to the court, "It is respectfully urged that this Court find that I am no longer the defendant's attorney of record…there is no attorney-client relationship to be maintained.(359)" Valdez Jr. filed a motion to represent himself, but the judge denied it because he insisted on having three extra months to prepare for his defense. Thus, Filipi remained the legal counsel of Valdez Jr.
For her husband, Maria hired local Downey attorney, Richard Leonard, who was far less active than Filipi. During the trial, he made a short opening statement, a short closing argument, and did not cross-examine any witnesses. His participation in the trial is documented in fifteen out of 1,500 transcript pages. "I heard him talking about how he was going to use the money from the case and go on a fishing trip," Steven Valdez recalls.
Inaction by both defense attorneys left critical information about the star prosecution witness undiscovered. A probation report found years later would reveal that he had been convicted twice on felony charges of theft of personal property (7). More shockingly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had paid him for his role in the sting operation. This was discovered when the prosecutor admitted in a discovery hearing without the presence of the jury, that the Downey Police lead investigator informed him that the star witness had been compensated by the FBI (402 Hearing). But the informant testified that he had no criminal record and that although the FBI had paid him in the past for his role in other investigations, he was not compensated this time.
It is likely that such information, if presented to the jury, would have changed the outcome of the verdict by requiring entrapment instructions. This, in light of a fact neither side disputed; that both the idea and discussion about first intimidating and later about killing the girl was instigated by the informant (and by virtue of his payment from the FBI, a police agent).
FBI compensation and a criminal record are not the only items working to discredit the star prosecution witness. The informant's testimony contradicted the undercover police officer on a number of occasions. For example, the informant testified that he had opened the barrel and taken rounds out of the gun and that Valdez Sr. handled the gun while it was being purchased (398). However, the undercover officer testified that the gun was never loaded and Valdez Sr. never handled the gun (743).
If the informants record before the trial did not prove that he would do just about anything for money, all doubt was removed afterward. Just five days after the Valdez trial, he was arrested and convicted for the crime of car jacking (People v. Guerra, Macias 1). Despite a recommendation for jail time by his probation officer, he was given probation.
Valdez Jr's attorney, Filipi, pursued questions surrounding the FBI's role in the sting operation when she had an investigator subpoena the two federal agents involved. However, the agents did not honor the subpoenas, arguing that federal laws of sovereign immunity preclude them from being forced to attend local criminal cases. Federal agents participated in the sting operation but were never forced to answer questions about this participation. When asked why she thought the FBI was involved, Maria replied, "It doesn't make any sense at all. Why in the hell would the FBI be involved? Two plus two just doesn't come out. I just go nuts thinking about it."
Ms. Filipi also had the wiretap examined. According to a declaration by Norman Perle, Director of the National Audio/Video Forensic Laboratory in Northridge, California, there appeared to be " serious deficiencies in the recorded conversation that bare on the authenticity of the recorded evidence." He added:
1 there were at least 40 areas of audio where the waveform patterns were strikingly
similar to those, which are present when a tape recorder is stopped and re-started.
This is an unusually high quantity and would suggest a pattern of falsification.
The sounds seem to switch back and forth from outside to inside a car. This
is also a suspicious finding in that it would be similar had the tape been an
Filipi did not call Perle to testify nor submit his declaration to the court. That the wiretap was probably edited was significant. Jurors were deprived of the context in which incriminating statements were made, a context necessary in determining whether or not the statements were serious. "They [the lawyers] knew the tape was edited all along, why didn't they do anything about it?" Maria asks.
Things got worse. Early into the trial, Valdez Sr. slipped on a wet floor while in County Jail, hitting the top of his head on the end of a table as he fell forward. Blood quickly covered the floor. When the bleeding stopped, Valdez Sr's mental abilities began to decline. He lost 80 lbs, became confined to a wheel chair, and lost control of his bowel movements. Two court-appointed doctors testified that he was incompetent to stand trial. Among them was Dr. Coodley, who noted on record that Valdez Sr. didn't know why he was in jail and couldn't perform simple arithmetic (45-69). "He looked like he was on drugs, like he was gone," Maria remembers. "He didn't even try to talk to Leonard [his attorney], he was so sick and everything. He would just wave at Steven and I."
Yet the show rolled on and although Valdez Sr. was incapable of testifying in his own defense, he stood trial for conspiracy to murder. Maria remembers that at the beginning of each day in court, her husband and son would come out together-her son pushing his father's wheel chair. "The jailers had a nickname for them," Maria says. "They called them the old man and the kid." Ironically, O.J. Simpson was also held in the same LA county jail during all of this. Valdez Jr. told me during a visit, "O.J. was kept separate. They gave him his own row of cells, an exercise bike, and even brought stuff from the outside for him to eat. They do that for high-profile cases."
The prosecutor did a masterful job. He called the informant to the stand and began playing the wiretap, stopping it periodically to ask the informant what was going on. This way, many of the holes and distortions in the tape were explained to the jury-albeit, by a paid FBI informant with two prior felony convictions. Maria told me, "[The Prosecutor] never said anything to me. He handled himself like an intimidating figure. I wouldn't mind having him in my corner."
The prosecutor's own misleading interpretation of the wiretap was also very damaging. He told the jury that Valdez Sr. discussed on the wiretap, "hollow-point bullets" and "the killing power of the gun and bullets." But according to an available copy of the wiretap, these were quotes of the informant, not Valdez Sr. As the prosecutor spoke, a frail Valdez Sr. looked on from a wheelchair at the front of the courtroom, incapable of refuting the false statements.
At least some members of the jury did not wholly accept the prosecution's interpretation of the wiretap. Indeed, they formally requested a Spanish translation, however, the judge denied the request without a reason (Request 1). When asked why she thought the judge denied the request, Maria replied, "I don't have any idea. Maybe he was influenced by the prosecutor, he was in charge of the courtroom."
A former juror spoke out about the issue of the Spanish translation. In a February 2002 interview, Calvin Nakamoto said:
Yah, I didn't feel
comfortable with that case. I felt sorry for the young man; he was very angry
and you say things when you're angry, it doesn't mean you're really going to
shoot the person. The thing about that case, I don't understand Spanish and
I had to go off of what someone else said it meant. I don't usually like taking
someone else's word for those kinds of things.
The former juror makes clear that the Spanish statements were critical in making a decision about guilt or innocence. They also suggest juror misconduct. Because a court translation was denied, Mr. Nakamoto and presumably other jurors must have been told what the Spanish statements meant by fellow jurors. This means two things; (a) that at least some jurors received outside "evidence" that was not available for cross-examination, and (b) that there were effectively two juries, one that could understand Spanish, and one that could not.
Four days before Christmas day in 1994, when jurors are understandably anxious to go home, the foreman announced a verdict. Valdez Jr. and Sr. were guilty of solicitation and conspiracy to commit murder, charges that carried life sentences. Maria froze. Then she began to feel dizzy. "I remember driving home after the verdict was read," she says. "I drove down the street and saw the light turn red. I pushed on the gas. I wanted to die. I really wanted to die. The only thing that kept me from doing it was Steven, sitting next to me in the car."
Maria had faith that an appellate attorney could rectify the situation. On the recommendation of her imprisoned son, she hired Richard Dangler, an experienced attorney from Sacramento. Dangler authored appeals petitions that detailed many key issues ignored in the original trial, including FBI compensation to the informant, the denial of a Spanish translation of the wiretap, evidence supporting that the wiretap was edited, and even the antagonistic history Valdez Jr. shared with Downey Police over gaining permits to throw large rave parties in Downey. He argued that the informant entrapped Valdez Jr. into making incriminating statements while the prosecution's case against Valdez Sr. was built upon statements he never said and was physically unable to refute. Additionally, Dangler argued that the attorney for Valdez Jr. failed to investigate prosecution witnesses while the attorney for Valdez Sr. failed to mount any kind of defense.
In July 1996, the California Second Appellate District Court affirmed the convictions for Valdez Jr. and Sr. The decision was based on many of the same falsehoods presented in the original trial. The opinion states:
In refusing to
give the proffered entrapment instructions, the trial court expressly found
that [the informant] was not a police agent. The record supports this finding.
Although he cooperated with the police, he was not employed by the police and
did not act at their instigation. (8)
On the issue of insufficient evidence to convict Valdez Sr., the opinion states, "We disagree. The basic fallacy with his [Valdez Sr.] position is his failure to acknowledge circumstantial evidence. (5)" In November 1996, the California Supreme Court denied petitions for review.
Federal court would be different, Maria reasoned, because they are removed from the corrupt state system. Dangler gave Maria a discount to represent her husband and son in federal court, just $12,500 (plus $600 for court transcript copying fees because he lost the previous ones). Then a brand new problem arose. Despite completing the federal petitions, Dangler filed them 280 days after a one-year deadline imposed by the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, barring the case from being heard in federal court-forever. Dangler told Maria he got sick. He wrote Valdez Sr. a letter opening with the statement, "We do not think your case was sent out late at all (See Dangler Letter and Critique)." Unfortunately, the letter never attempted to back up this claim.
In defense of Dangler, the late filings may not have been entirely his fault. Another attorney, Leonard Milstein, agreed to assist Dangler on the federal petitions on a pro-bono basis. As a result, Valdez Jr. handed him all client files, prior petitions, and exhibits. Then Milstein disappeared, prompting Dangler to write him a letter in April of 2000, asking for the files back. Dangler was forced to re-order files from the Courts. In March 2003, the state bar informed Valdez Jr. that Milstien had been disbarred and that his file, along with those of 26 others, would finally be returned.
Just as Milstien disappeared, so did Dangler. He ended all communication with the Valdez family. Although he still legally represents Junior and Senior, he refuses to return phone calls or written correspondence. In October of 2001, the United States Supreme Court denied a writ of certiorari (asking the case to be heard despite the time bar) submitted by Dangler on the behalf of Valdez Jr. Almost a year and a half later, the Valdez family learned of the news, not from Dangler, but by calling the court clerk. When asked how she felt going into federal court, Maria responded,
I thought there was a good chance. He [Dangler] sounded so confident on the phone. They make us believe. I was sold out with Leonard and nothing changed with Dangler. You always have hope this is the right one. I got burned over and over and now the money is not there.
The Old Man
Today, the old man in the wheel chair is not the same broken man of nine years past. His physical and mental health began to return a few years ago. Housed at a Prison Medical Facility in the small Northern California town of Vacaville, Valdez Sr., 65, speaks and looks surprisingly sharp. Even some of his hair has grown back.
Valdez Sr. is a relatively short man with small brown eyes and a broad smile. He grew up in Espanola, New Mexico and moved to California in 1957 to work in the aerospace industry, first as an electronic assembler, and later as an electrician. He was drafted into the army in 1960 and served over two years as an electrician at an Arizona base, and later overseas in West Germany. Upon his return, Valdez Sr. worked within the aerospace industry for the next thirty years, mostly with Rockwell International in Downey, California. He met Maria when she was working as a waitress in East Los Angeles. After just three months, the two were married in 1967.
The first few years in prison were hell. Authorities placed Valdez Sr. into the general prison population at Corcoran. There, his deteriorating health left him unable to take care of himself. Maria grew very worried:
One time when he was struggling to take a shower, another inmate helped him and began to look after him. This man, Kenny Neighbors, saved my husband's life. Each time I visited, Tito was worse. I kept trying to get him transported to a hospital; I thought he was going to die. He looked so terrible. An organization finally got them to transport him to a hospital.
On a different occasion, guards placed Valdez Sr. in a cell with an inmate who refused to be quiet when ordered to do so. One guard approached the cell, walked in, and poured water over both mattresses. Then he placed the soaking mattresses in front of the cell so other inmates could see what happens when they talk back. For three consecutive nights, Valdez Sr. slept on the cold cement. He would later write to me:
After I got put in jail on Dec. 2, 1993, I stopped believing in the Lord because David and I prayed when we went to court and the Lord did not help us. I just wanted to die because when we were sentenced 25 to life, I thought I'd never see my wife, my son Steve, David, mom, sisters, relatives and friends.
Despite these experiences, Valdez Sr. maintains a strikingly high level of hope, in large part attributable to a renewed faith in god. Around four years ago, he began working as a porter near the prison's church. It was a good environment; people there didn't seem bitter and there were always plenty of donuts. He eventually joined the church after a very long absence. Valdez Sr. writes, "I'm sending you this certificate to let you know that I started believing in the Lord again after March 12, 2000." The attached certificate verified his baptism in the River City Apostolic Church. He added:
God will bless
you for believing in justice and for helping people that are put in jail because
of corruption, and are really innocent. I'll keep praying for God to guide you
through the right path, to protect you against all evil, Satan, and your enemies
and to keep you out of trouble and for God to Bless you lots of peace and joy.
Valdez Sr.'s faith in God has not made him complacent. He spends hours reviewing court transcripts and related materials, meticulously searching for his ticket to freedom. When asked about her husband's renewed faith in God, Maria told me:
I think it helps.
He sounds happier these days; he is more calm and understanding, more at peace.
I can't do that yet, I'm still angry at people, maybe I'll get piece of mind
one of these days.
The kid, now 32, sticks out in prison like a sore thumb. He is small, clean-cut, and always sports freshly ironed prison blues. With eyeglasses and a sharply articulate voice, he looks more like a university intellectual instead of an inmate. Valdez Jr. spends as much time as possible in the prison law library. He has written thousands of letters and published book reviews. Although he has never personally seen the Internet, he co-founded a web sight called inmate.com in 1995. The site connects inmates with pen pals on the outside and has allowed Valdez Jr. to post information about his case. In 2001, Valdez Jr's "Prison Diaries" were published as a cover story in the San Luis Obispo New Times weekly magazine.
Signs of Valdez Jr.'s creative ambition were more than apparent before going to prison. After attending college at California State University at Long Beach, Valdez Jr. moved to New Mexico and landed a job as a radio personality on Albuquerque's 97.3 KISS FM. He also organized large "above ground" rave parties that were legal and drug free. A thriving rave scene was attracting large audiences in the early 1990's and Valdez Jr., with his radio alias "Hollywood Haze", quickly became an icon within this subculture.
He subsequently returned to Downey, California where he landed a radio job on 96.7 KWIZ FM called the "Full Flavor" show. He began hosting and producing a weekly television show on rave culture that appeared on six major Los Angeles leased access stations. He continued to organize rave parties with plans to establish a permanent club at a 20,000-square-foot roller skating rink in Downey, California. At age 22, Valdez Jr. was making a name for himself. Interviewed by the Downey Press-Telegram in an article titled, "Local Leaders Share Their New Year's Resolutions," he commented, "I hope to land a radio gig and have the TV show on a network. Downey is a very conservative town. They've got to loosen up. (Karber B1)"
Not everyone was excited about Valdez Jr.'s rave parties, including some members of the Downey Police Department. On one occasion while he was passing out flyers for a party, a Downey police officer approached him and cited him for possession of an open container of alcohol on public property. The citation was based on the fact that there were empty beer cans on the ground. According to Valdez Jr., the officer told him, "This should give you a hint that we don't want Blacks and Mexicans coming into Downey. (Dangler 10)"
Valdez Jr. has had to adjust to a completely new set of goals. Interviewing members of the popular rap group, "tag-team" (responsible for the global hit, 'Whoop, there it is') inside a limousine during the day while throwing a party of sixteen thousand people at night used to constitute a good day. Today, a good day occurs when he receives a supportive letter from someone who happened to come across his case information on the Internet.
Valdez Jr. still possesses the motivation he had as an entertainer, which seems to stem not from religion, but confidence. In a 2001 letter to his father, he writes:
I won't lie to
you, I'm not spiritual, I don't believe in God, I don't go to church. I don't
put faith in any higher power any Jesus, or any Bible, but I do put faith in
myself. This I how I have been strong. By continuing to be determined to expose
the travesty that occurred to us, by reaching out and meeting people in positions
who can help, by writing as many people as I can to get someone to listen.
But nine years in prison has left Valdez Jr's confidence tempered by depression and regrets. While housed at the California Men's Colony in late 2001, prison authorities committed him into a psychiatric ward for a month due to signs of depression. In January of 2001, he revisited some painful memories in a different letter to his father:
When I think of
you, I remember our last moment together, after the Sentencing Hearing. Seeing
you weighing only 95 lbs, barely able to walk, and hugging you for what I knew
would be the last time. I was faced with the biggest decision of my life back
in 1994. As you know, the District Attorney was willing to make a plea bargain
letting you go free on probation or at most, a sentence of 6 years in exchange
for me taking a 7 year to life sentence. But knowing that this liar informant
was the star prosecution witness, and that I was targeted by the FBI for my
efforts to create social change, I could not allow either of us to be convicted.
If I would have known what I know now, about how crooked this criminal justice
system is, I would have taken the deal, letting you go free, and accepting my
fate of life in prison.
While Junior and Senior remain incarcerated, life methodically moves forward for Maria Valdez. She still lives with her son Steven at the same house in Downey and works the night shift at the same o-rings factory. She still takes a daily nap at 3pm so she can work through the night. Mr. Tito, as she refers to her husband, calls every Sunday and she and Steven make the five-hour drive to see David about once every six months.
Even this relative stability in Maria's life is threatened. Her employer, National O-Rings, is making plans to move their operations to Mexico where labor costs are much lower. Maria told me, "The last two Fridays they've been laying people off, 70 in the last two weeks." Then she joked, "Who wants to hire an old women like me? Oh, whatever, I'll get another job as a waitress or maybe collect unemployment."
Maria is also concerned that her husband and son may be arbitrarily moved to different prisons. Just recently, authorities abruptly moved Valdez Jr. from San Luis Obispo to Soledad. Combined, Junior and Senior have spent time in eight different prisons, with each move prompting a reorientation process for Maria. "I've been to seven of these prisons," she notes. "I never visited David when he was at Folsom, it was far and Steven didn't drive then. I felt bad because he was there a whole year but it was too hard to make it."
By Way of Conclusion
Maria sits back calmly in her chair at home. The room is dark and still with the sounds of a tennis match on television subtly breaking the silence. After a long conversation about the case, she stares in deep contemplation. Maria realizes that she cannot blame one person. Who would it be; the informant, the prosecutor, the judge, the lawyers, the police, or the FBI? Maria jokes about getting back at the District Attorney:
I saw him on T.V.
the other day. He still runs the show over there. I think I'll be one of those
court watchers who just show up. Then I'll make some noises when he speaks to
disrupt him. I wonder how long it would take for them to kick me out.
All joking aside, Maria doesn't seem to care about blaming people. She just wants her family back. She says, "It takes money. Sometimes I think: let's play their dirty game and get high-powered attorneys. But I'm in no position to do that."
For many people like Maria who are not in a position to mobilize legal resources, the system isn't working. In 2000, the LAPD Rampart Division Scandal led to the release of over 100 people because some officers were acting like the gang members they pursued. Two years ago in Illinois, a republican governor shocked the nation when he halted his state's death penalty in light of thirteen exonerations. This year, five men convicted of a 1989 rape and murder of a jogger in central park, New York, were cleared due to the confession of the real killer.
These are just the bigger stories. University of South Carolina Professor, Edmund Higgins, maintains a database of 316 wrongful convictions (Web 1). As Higgins notes, "No entity exists to investigate the injustice of a wrongful conviction and authorities in the criminal justice system make no attempt to collect, organize, or review their mistakes. (web 1)"
Instead of outrage, many of the stories draw indifference as hyper-commercialized cases steal the public's attention. It seems that most everyone has an opinion on O.J. Simpson. He is guilty, most of us conclude. But how many of us have thought about the Valdez Case, or others like it? Innocent people in America can be imprisoned for life and even executed. When will their stories arouse the public's conscience?
In the case of the old man and the kid, the story is not over. Everyday presents a new opportunity for a loose but growing network of legal activists to aid in their freedom. Valdez Sr. can overcome the federal time-bar by proving his factual innocence, and with this, the conspiracy case would fall apart for Junior as well. But it takes work that no pro bono attorney has agreed to accept thus far.
By now, it is time for Maria to take her daily nap so she can be ready to work. She sits up, offers me some candy for the road, and thanks me for stopping by. I accept but she tells me to take more. With pockets full of snickers and mints, I turn and notice a basketball team picture on the wall. Maria sees this and begins to describe her husband's relationship with Steven before the arrest. With a warm smile she tells me, "They would do all kinds of things together. They would play basketball. They would work out together. He really loved that boy. Steven was the apple of his eye."
Armstrong, Robert W., People v. Tito David Valdez Jr. CA Super. Ct. No. VA018435 (1993), Re-Sentencing Hearing: Nov. 17 1995
Dangler, Richard "Memorandum of Points: Writ of Habeas Corpus for Central District Court of California", Case No. 00-07053 JL(CT)
"Dangler Letter" September 20, 2001 to Tito David Valdez Sr. From the Law Offices of Richard Dangler 3112 "O" Street Sacramento, CA 95816
Jones, Thomas L. "O.J. Simpson" Courtroom Television Network http://www.crimelibrary.com/classics4/oj/ Jury Request #406, People v. Tito David Valdez Sr., Jr. CA Super. Ct. No. VA019985 (1994)
Karber, Dorothy "Local Leaders Share New Year's Resolutions" Press Telegram, October 7, 1993 Nakamoto, Calvin Jury Member, phone interview by Jesse McGowan 4:20pm 01/13/2002
People v. Tito David Valdez Jr. and Tito David Valdez Sr. CA Super. Ct. No. VA019985 (1994)
People v. Manuel Jesus Guerra and Mario Alberto Macias CA Super. Ct. No. BA106893 (1995)
Perle, Norman I. "Declaration" 11/06/1997 National Audio/Forensic Laboratory 8357 Shirley Ave. Northridge, CA 91324
Preliminary Hearing The People v. Tito David Valdez Jr. CA Sup. Ct. No. VA018435 (1993)
"Probation Report Officer" Barry J. Nidoff, Defendant: Manuel Del Jesus Guerra, CA Sup. Ct. of Los Angeles JAI, CII, CLETS (2-2-95)
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