March 28, 2017: Seventh floor of Criminal Courts building on Temple, just across the street, down from Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, outside courtroom #55. Sitting on a bench lining hallway.
A television news photographer toting camera on right shoulder comes up to me. Says, “Must be a slow news day,” looking around at a dozen of other TV cameramen, a couple still photographers with long lenses, and a few TV and print reporters. But this is a pool setup for official exoneration of Marco Contreras.
Forty-one-year-old being released after serving 20 years in California prisons for crimes he didn’t commit — brutal attempted murder and robbery at gas station in Compton. Only one still photog (from L.A. Times, of course) and one TV guy allowed to go inside bar. Rest of us reporters exiled to peanut gallery on church-like pews. TV cameramen gone to 12th floor for press conference after hearing.
“Listen up!” barks female deputy sheriff bailiff with graying short hair. “I’ve witnessed many tears of joy on my job here. But I will enforce rules.” No pictures with cell phones, no recordings unless authorized in courtroom and hallway. “I will be protecting the petitioner until he leaves the building,” she adds. “Thank you for being here.”
Courtroom #55 is all wood walls. At first glance, looks impressive with high ceiling. But then you realize walls are all prefab paneling.
By 10:30 on Tuesday morning, when session is supposed to start, room has gone dead silent. Until Laurie Levenson, Loyola Law School celebrity prof, walks through back side door in gray pantsuit. Followed by another law prof, Adam Grant, wearing dark suit, pink shirt and bow tie. Levenson founded Loyola’s Project for the Innocent (LPI), Grant is its current program director.
Release in press package says LPI “pursues claims of actual innocence on behalf of those wrongfully convicted of crimes.” Just two weeks ago another lifer, Andrew Leander Wilson, had his murder conviction thrown out by another judge after serving 32 years behind bars. So innocence project is on a real roll.
Minutes later, Contreras, wearing dark suit and tie, comes in from side door with another female deputy sheriff. Sits at counsel’s table with Levenson and Grant. At 10:47, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Ryan enters the courtroom. “Good morning, everyone,” he says, from behind the bench, with a friendly middle-aged face like your favorite uncle. He explains today’s hearing is “somewhat anticlimactic.” The exoneration and release of the prisoner has already been worked out. He was found to be “factually innocent.”
But judge still asks Loyola lawyers and Robert Grace from DA’s Conviction Review Unit if they have “no qualms” about releasing Contreras. They don’t. (Grace is, in fact, a Loyola alum himself, class of ’87.) Judge Ryan asks, “Is there’s anything Mr. Contreras would like to say?”
He says, “I want to say thanks to you, very much,” in a quiet voice that can barely be heard.
Smiling a little, judge says, “You’re welcome.” Adds, hopes former prisoner has good support system, because world has “changed a lot” during last two decades. Says, “This is a new chapter in your life. Good luck to you, sir.”
Bailiff adjourns hearing. Courtroom, full of family members and law students from the innocence project, breaks out in applause, cheers and shouts. Above it all, there’s a “Woo! Woo! Woo!” from a female’s voice.
Now it’s a short elevator ride to 12th floor. TV cameramen’s tripods all are set up at the end of the wide hallway. A dozen mics right in front of former prisoner. He’s even asked to hold a couple, looking somewhat overwhelmed by it all. But cups mics in both hands.
One of the first queries shouted out is, “How are you feeling right now?”
“I’ve been patient and it’s paid off,” he says, again just above a whisper.
Another question comes out of left field. It’s about three suspects who’ve been arrested and are being held because of DA’s and sheriff’s investigations.
Lawyer Levenson steps forward. “It’s an ongoing case, so we’re not going to comment on it. Yes, there are people in custody.”
Another obvious getting-out-of-prison query from TV folks: “What do you want to do right now?”
“I want to contact people to let them know I’m out. And just have a good time and cherish this moment.”
Followed quickly by another, “How do you feel about getting out?”
“Something good can come out of something bad. I had a temptation to be really … and I was frustrated. But — ”
“Did you eat something this morning?” cuts off Contreras’ reply.
“A sandwich and Snickers bar,” draws chuckles.
Now a young woman in yellow sweater asks if he would answer some questions in Spanish. He does for about 10 minutes, before someone says, “Back to English!”
Contreras is now juggling three, four mics. Reporters kneeling on hallway floor thrust more mics at him. This would intimidate a seasoned politician, never mind a shy man who’s been locked up 20 years.
Another shout, “Let his mom through!” gets Contreras looking beyond cameras. But is then asked, “How did you deal with being locked up for those 20 years, knowing you were innocent?”
For a moment, he says nothing. “I was taking it one day at a time. I wasn’t expecting this to happen, but it did.” Then adds, “I’ve been patient for this day to arrive. At first, I was frustrated, but then I had to refocus to continue to appeal my case, have my case in the legal system.”
“Here comes your mom!”
Maria Contreras pokes through the swarm of TV cameramen. They’re jostling for right angle to shoot this hundred-dollar shot. Son and mother hug. She says, “!Felicidades, mi hijo! Felicidades, mi hijo!” First real smile came across his face.
Later, his dad, Donato, wearing a flannel shirt and baseball cap, also makes his way to front. Another half-minute hug.
Questions from TV folks becoming more intrusive: “Where were you when it happened at the gas station?”
Contreras says he was home sleeping after getting off his graveyard-shift security guard job.
Says he’s looking forward to two things: having good Mexican food and to April 11 — the date Jehovah’s Witnesses like himself remember day Jesus was crucified.
Cameramen moving closer and closer now to Contreras and his parents. Lenses practically in his face, he’s being interviewed at same time reporters from Spanish TV stations are asking mom and dad questions. Lawyers Levenson and Grant are also fielding queries. So are law students, mostly young women wearing black skirt suits and black high-heels.
The former lifer is asked if he’s bitter at being in prison nearly half his life. Says he isn’t. And again, how he didn’t become overwhelmed “by depression” knowing he was innocent.
“It was my faith,” he says, now engulfed by TV cameramen and photographers. “My faith.”