By Tony Saavedras, Staff Writer
July 22, 2016

The American Civil Liberties Union sent volunteer watchers into local courtrooms Friday, a move aimed at bringing attention to what the civil rights group describes as routine cheating by prosecutors in Orange County.

The watchdog effort, which on Friday included 24 nonlawyers wearing bright green shirts, comes after claims by local defense attorneys that prosecutors have misused jailhouse informants and withheld evidence in many cases. At least six criminal cases locally have unraveled in the past three years when judges agreed that police or prosecutors violated rules.

“The purpose of this program is to send a clear message to the OCDA, to law enforcement and to the judges that the public is paying attention and demands justice,” said Brendan Hamme, an attorney with the ACLU’s Southern California office in Los Angeles.

An official with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office said Friday that ACLU volunteers are welcome and that the office works to insure everyone’s constitutional rights are upheld.

“We have made a lot of improvement in how we comply with discovery,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, the district attorney’s chief of staff.

The monitors who sat in pretrial hearings in Santa Ana on Friday were largely silent, wearing T-shirts that asked, “Have you turned over your Brady evidence?” That refers to a legal rule that prosecutors are required to share evidence that might benefit a defendant.

But the ACLU hopes their mere presence will speak volumes.

Ronnie Carmona and Theresa Smith were among the watchers and, after receiving a short primer by the ACLU on key legal terms and what to look for earlier in the week, spent part of Friday watching brief exchanges between judges and lawyers in more than a dozen pretrial hearings. It’s unclear if any of the watchers found cases in which prosecutors withheld evidence.

Carmona and Smith, like other volunteers, are no strangers to flaws that can transpire in the justice system.

Carmona’s son, Arthur, was wrongly convicted in 1998 of robbing a juice bar in Irvine and a Denny’s restaurant in Costa Mesa at the age of 16. He spent two years in prison before he was exonerated and released. Court records show that a police officer put a Lakers cap worn by the robber onto the boy and showed him to a witness. There was no physical evidence linking Carmona to the robberies, only testimony from four eyewitnesses, two of whom later recanted.

Freedom was fleeting for Arthur Carmona, however. He died in 2008 after being run down in a hit-and-run in Santa Ana.

“I know what it’s like to be denied (justice),” Carmona said. “I know the devastation when you don’t get a fair shot.

“I’m doing it because we need change in our judicial system and it doesn’t look like the D.A. is going to do it on his own,“ she added.

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