By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
True to his word, Govea immediately found Deputy D.A. Margaret Lawrence. "I said, 'Marni, you know, there's a problem with this case. I truly believe it's a mistake.'" He did not go so far as to ask her to drop the charges, but he did request that she agree to a special hearing - one that every defendant is entitled to - in which the arresting officer must prove a connection between the person who was arrested and the crime.
Lawrence was skeptical. She pointed out that the judge had already denied attorney Barry Bernstein's request that Ricky be released to his parents. But Govea persisted, and she finally agreed. He handed her the folder of certificates, report cards and teacher testimonials, along with a typed minute-by-minute account of Ricky's whereabouts the day of the crime, which had been prepared by Robert's girlfriend. Lawrence said she would read the material, and scheduled a hearing for the following Monday.
That morning, the family arrived early yet again, to wait for hours in the hallway. They were tense, nervous, subdued. "Scary," Salvador said quietly. "Court dates are scary. Because you feel helpless. There's nothing you can do to move these people, to get 'em thinking your way. They're set in a certain route and that's the route they're gonna take and nothing can change it."
Hours later Govea arrived, apologizing for being late. But he had good news. Deputy D.A. Lawrence had completed her examination of the material he had given her and she, too, had begun to suspect that Ricky was innocent. The arresting officer had failed to show up for the hearing, and she still had a few more calls to make, but she'd probably be able to request Ricky's release to his parents' custody the following day.
The family had already walked outside the courthouse when Lawrence came running out, smiling at them for the first time. She had just talked with Detective Avila from Newton Station, and he told her of the conclusion he had reached weeks before.
Ricky is getting out today, she told the family. Not only would he be released to his parents, but the charge had been dropped, and he'd be out that afternoon. In addition, she promised to request, on Ricky's behalf, a "factual finding of innocence." She congratulated the family, then went back inside.
After 28 days in jail for a crime he did not commit, Ricky Tovar was free.
Carolina immediately broke down in tears. Marcy, also in tears, went to comfort her. Robert started hopping around, giddy. But Salvador stood stark still, fists clenched, jaw tight. At this moment more than any other, he was angry. He couldn't point a finger at anyone in particular, but he felt that his son had been the victim of some cruel caprice - driven not by malicious intent, but rather by the hardness of a system that would incarcerate an innocent child, then consider his release a cause for celebration. "Why?" he asked. "Why?"
Once it was all over, the district attorney and the police took credit for a job well done. "Margaret Lawrence is the hero in this case," declared Sandi Gibbons of the D.A.'s Office. "She got the case and looked at it, asked for further investigation, and then in her own mind decided that this was a good kid and that he did not do it." Gibbons also said that freeing an innocent person after a month in jail is "almost lightning speed," and that anyone who gets out so fast should count himself lucky.
Tony Ketelsleger, supervising detective at Newton Station, said the police did Ricky a favor by putting him in a photo lineup the night of his arrest. Legally, all they needed was a hunch. "They went one step beyond what they had to do to make this arrest," Ketelsleger said. He showed off the word Exonerated printed in black marker across the top of Ricky's file. "It's the best we can do for him," he said. "Unfortunately, it's also the least we can do for him."
But Ketelsleger refused to remove Ricky from the Newton Station gang file, where he is listed as a "gang associate" because he was arrested with a known gang member. Ricky will remain on that list for five years.
Ketelsleger did allow that Ricky's arrest was a "misfortune." But, he said, "people have a tendency to look like one another." He has children of his own. "If it was my kid, I'd be upset too. But robbery is a serious crime." The police say they've launched an internal investigation into Ricky's charge that he was beaten the night of his arrest. Ketelsleger refused to say whether the officer involved in the investigation has any prior record of abuse. It's "a personnel matter," he said, and therefore not open to public scrutiny.
Two days after Ricky came home, Salvador celebrated his 78th birthday. The whole family was there, as were many of Ricky's friends and several of his teachers. "This is the best gift I could ever wish for," Salvador said that day. "To live to see Ricky this far, to see my family here, closer than ever."
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