SANTA ANA – A state appeals court panel reversed a second-degree murder conviction for a 22-year-old man charged in a gang-related shooting nearly six years ago, according to records obtained Thursday.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal panel found that Jeremy Erin Valdez should not have been convicted because his attorney failed to do his job correctly.
“Valdez's conviction must be reversed based on ineffective assistance of counsel because his trial attorney's failure to investigate the case and uncover a key exculpatory witness destroys our confidence in a jury verdict concluding he aides and abetted the shooter in killing the victim,” the justices wrote in the ruling issued Wednesday.
The justices upheld the second-degree murder convictions for co-defendants Alexander Soto, 24, and David Anthony Luna, 21, for the June 4, 2010, fatal shooting of Harvey Romero in Stanton. Co-defendant Jorge Huante, considered by prosecutors to be the actual shooter, remains a fugitive, according to court records.
Romero and his friends were slowly driving on Santa Catalina Street looking for a friend when gang members walked up and confronted them. During the conflict, two shots rang out, hitting Romero, who was a passenger in the car and had put his head out the window.
At issue in Valdez's case was if a witness truthfully testified that Valdez stood in front of the SUV to try to stop it while the gang was doing a “hit up,” according to the justices.
A former girlfriend testified Valdez was talking to a group of women when the shots rang out.
Now-retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno agreed that Valdez's defense attorney, Gary Schreiber, “was deficient in failing to interview a single witness despite the murder charges against Valdez,” the justices ruled. But Briseno denied a motion for a new trial.
Valdez's subsequent attorney, Mark Fredrick, hired an investigator, who interviewed the man behind the wheel of the SUV when Romero was killed.
That witness denied anyone stepped in front of the SUV before the shooting, according to the ruling.
“This contradicted the lone eyewitness who suggested Valdez participated in any manner in the offense,” the justices concluded.
Also, the witness who put Valdez in front of the SUV could not have seen him there, because the shots rang out as the driver turned the corner, making it “impossible for the witness to see in front of the SUV where he claimed Valdez stood,” according to the ruling.
The witness, Giovanni Valdez, who was no relation of the defendant, “had admitted he did not like Valdez,” according to the ruling.
Schreiber told City News Service, “I read the court’s summary of facts - unfortunately not accurate. Good for Jeremy, though.”
The Orange County District Attorney's Office did not immediately respond to questions about how prosecutors would handle the case against Valdez going forward.
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