Marco Contreras (R) and Adam Grant (L) deputy director of Loyola Law School's Project for the Innocent. Photo via Loyola Law School Twitter feed
Marco Contreras (R) and Adam Grant (L) deputy director of Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent. Photo via Loyola Law School Twitter feed

A man who already served 20 years of a life sentence for a 1996 attempted murder and robbery at a Compton gas station was released from custody Tuesday after being declared factually innocent of the crime.

Marco Contreras, now 41, thanked Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan and others who were involved in securing his release.

“This is a new chapter in your life … I wish you the very best of luck,” the judge said, with many in the courtroom clapping loudly as the hearing ended.

Contreras hugged his mother and father moments after he was released from custody after two decades behind bars.

Contreras’ release came in response to a joint petition filed by the District Attorney’s Office and Loyola Law School’s Los Angeles Project for the Innocent.

Minutes later, Contreras said he planned to meet with law students from Loyola Law School who “played a part in making this happen.”

“I’ve been patient for this day to arrive,” he told reporters. “(At) first, I was frustrated, but then I had to refocus to continue to appeal my case, have my case in the legal system.”

Laurie Levinson, who founded Los Angeles Project for the Innocent, said, “We just are grateful that the District Attorney’s Office and the sheriff’s went ahead and did that full investigation. There are people in custody who will have to face the crime that they did that Marco spent the time in prison for.”

Robert Grace — deputy in charge of the District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit — told reporters after the hearing it was a “third-party culpability case.”

“There were other people that were alleged to have been involved in the case and we had to do an investigation to convince ourselves that there were, in fact, other people that were involved, and a key piece of the evidence, obviously, was that there was a mistaken eyewitness identification. There had been corroborating evidence that went along with that,” Grace said. “We had new evidence that came in and convinced us that Mr. Contreras wasn’t guilty, that we no longer had confidence in the conviction.”

In a 15-page letter to the judge, Chief Deputy District Attorney John K. Spillane noted that the Conviction Review Unit had undertaken a “complete and thorough review of the case,” which included a request for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to re-open an investigation that was initially conducted by the now-disbanded Compton Police Department.

“Newly discovered evidence suggests that a person other than Marco is guilty of the attempted murder of Jose Garcia,” Spillane wrote.

The 47-year-old victim — who was hospitalized 23 days as a result of the shooting — was shot in the chest after arriving at a Mepco gas station at the corner of Acacia Avenue and Alondra Boulevard in Compton to fill the tank of his truck, then crawled under a vehicle for cover as the gunman fired multiple times, according to the letter.

Compton police investigators subsequently determined the license plate number of the Ford Bronco in which the gunman escaped had been sold by a car dealer to Contreras, who insisted he was home sleeping after working the graveyard shift as a security guard at a Bellflower hospital, according to Spillane’s letter.

According to the law school project, an eyewitness to the shooting inaccurately identified Contreras as the shooter. Loyola officials said a combination of factors led to Contreras’ conviction, including the fact that he looks similar to the actual culprit and the spotting of Contreras’ vehicle, which he had lent to someone else.

The conviction is the second to be vacated at the request of the District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit.

In January, the same judge overturned the conviction of Raymond Lee Jennings, another former security guard who spent more than a decade behind bars for the February 2000 shooting death of 18-year-old Michelle O’Keefe in a park-and-ride lot in Palmdale. A week later, Jennings was declared factually innocent of the crime.

— City News Service

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.