LOS ANGELES, California - David Diaz has spent over half his life carrying out a sentence in Fresno, California, for a crime that occurred 19 years ago. But both the victim and the key trial witness have stated that he is innocent.
Diaz was just 19 when he was sentenced to 37 years to life for attempted murder in a crime that took place in a Hispanic Los Angeles neighborhood on July 14, 1998. On August 11, 1998, an LAPD squad forced their way into his home and arrested him. He never returned.
Diaz is incarcerated in Pleasant Valley state prison in Fresno county - the sixth penitentiary he's been transferred to since his 1999 conviction.
Martha Sierra accused Diaz of attempting to kill her boyfriend, Remberto Preciado, in the Lincoln Heights area of L.A., in front of her. According to police, Preciado was asked what neighborhood he was from during a fight over gang rivalries, and subsequently shot in the leg.
At the hospital, Sierra, then 18, was asked for information about the suspect. Detectives showed her photos of registered gang members in Lincoln Heights. She pointed to a young man, skinny with a shaved head, bushy eyebrows, and the start of a moustache. It was David Diaz.
In court, the defense presented evidence that showed Diaz was at the cinema with his family at the time of the shooting. But the jury was swayed by Sierra's identification of Diaz as the shooter.
Nineteen years later, Sierra admits that she chose Diaz at random due to police pressure. "They told me I couldn’t go home until I identified the criminal. I told them: 'OK, it’s this guy,' but I didn’t know who he was," she told Univision News.
"David Diaz was not the shooter," said Sierra, now 39. "I feel bad because he should not be there," she added.
Sierra says the true culprit does not even look like Diaz, but she did not see him among the pictures police showed her. "Everything happened so quickly but I remember that he was tall, with light skin, and skinny." According to Diaz and his lawyers, the true culprit died in a gunfight.
"He is innocent"
The victim of the shooting, Remberto Preciado, declared that the accused was not the man who shot him in the leg.
"He is innocent," Preciado wrote in a letter sent to Univision from Salinas Valley state prison, where he is serving a sentence for an unrelated incident. "In the trial, I testified that David Diaz was not the shooter. He is a victim of injustice of the Los Angeles’ courts," he wrote.
"Nineteen years of his life have been stolen from him," he added.
In 2006, Diaz received over $100,000 in compensation from the Los Angeles city government to settle a class action lawsuit filed against the police officers who investigated his case. He alleged that the officers fabricated evidence and conspired to obtain a false conviction against him for assault with a deadly weapon. He spent most of the settlement on lawyers and private detectives to prove his innocence.
"It breaks my heart that he is still in there. It’s a terrible injustice," said Scott Wood, a professor at Loyola Law School who has handled Diaz’s case for six years, trying to free him. The professor explained how he managed to get in touch with a witness to the shooting who later refused to cooperate. "We haven’t been able to obtain new evidence."
Attorney Ellen Eggers was the first to review Diaz’s case, which she turned over to Project for the Innocent, a Loyola Law School program that represents people believed to have been wrongfully convicted. She recounts Diaz's emotions when she visited. "He cried a lot because he thought someone was finally listening to him."
Eggers claims that Diaz has not been exonerated because of ineffective legal counsel, because the witnesses who testified against him do not want to retract their statements in court (possibly out of fear of being accused of perjury), and because no new evidence has been uncovered.
Diaz’s case conjures up memories of Francisco "Franky" Carrillo, who was detained by the L.A. Sheriff's Department after being accused of murdering Donald Sarpy in 1991. Carrillo, who was just 16, was exonerated two decades later, in 2011, when the Project for the Innocent proved that he had nothing to do with the homicide.
Last Fall, the Los Angeles Sheriff not only offered Carillo a public apology, but also agreed to pay him 10 million dollars for damages.
Diaz, just like Carrillo, was a gang-member. Eggers claims both were easy targets in the 1990s, during an epidemic of gun-related killings in Los Angeles.
"There were many shootouts with gangs in Los Angeles and the police did not have enough time to investigate the cases properly. They didn’t care if they arrested the wrong person. They solved cases very quickly by putting pressure on witnesses," says the lawyer.
David Diaz has spent every day of his adulthood in prison garb: a blue shirt, denim pants and black sneakers. He has suffered from anxiety, hypertension and other illnesses.
If he serves his full sentence he will be out of prison when he is 57-years-old, in 2035.
Diaz has spent his happiest moments in the visitor’s room at Pleasant Valley, a four hour car ride from Los Angeles. There, he meets with his family.
His mother, Yolanda Diaz, became devoutly religious following her only son’s incarceration. "I feel like they stole my son," says the 62-year-old woman, sobbing.
She says she speaks to God. "I told him: free him and take me instead. It’s enough already, the victim didn’t die." Through tears, she repeats "It’s enough already."
David's older sister Angela, 41, says that the only consolation for her family is that her brother is still alive. "We tell my mom: you have your son, you can speak to him even though it's over the phone. There are mothers who would wish just to hear their son’s voice."
In January, his sister Darlene, 35, got married and David was supposed to walk her down the aisle. "It broke my heart that David wasn’t there," Darlene said.
While the lawyers look for new evidence, one of Diaz’s three daughters, Jessica Garibay, 20, sent a letter to Governor Jerry Brown begging for her father’s exoneration.
“I long for the day they release him,” she wrote. “I was only one and half years old when he was taken from me.”