LOS ANGELES – A state appeals court panel Tuesday upheld the convictions of two men for a 1996 shooting at a Compton gas station that left one person wounded in a crime for which another man served two decades behind bars before being exonerated.
The three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the defense’s contention that there were errors in the trial of Antonio Salgado, now 46, and Antonio Garcia, now 66, but vacated their sentences and ordered a judge to re-sentence them in light of recent changes in state law.
Salgado was convicted of one count each of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Jurors also found true an allegation that he had personally used a firearm in the commission of the Sept. 10, 1996, attack on a man who survived being shot in the chest, in what the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office called a murder-for-hire plot. He was sentenced in January 2020 to 60 years to life.
Garcia was convicted of one count each of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder, and was sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison.
The two men were charged in March 2017, days before Marco Contreras was declared factually innocent of the crime and ordered to be released from custody.
“The work of my Conviction Review Unit does not stop when a wrongfully convicted person is freed from prison,” then-District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement. “We continue to seek justice on behalf of victims by re-investigating the crime and prosecuting the real criminals who, in this case, may have thought they got away with attempted murder.”
Marco Contreras was wrongly identified as the gunman by a witness while he sat in the courtroom audience during a hearing for his brother, Miguel, who later pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact and was sentenced to 16 months in state prison, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
In a March 2017 letter to Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Ryan, then-Chief Deputy District Attorney John Spillane wrote that Marco Contreras and Salgado “shared strikingly similar appearances” at the time and that it was “not unreasonable” for the eyewitness to have mistaken Contreras for Salgado.
Spillane noted that the District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit had undertaken a “complete and thorough review of the case,” which included a request for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to re-open an investigation that was initially conducted by the now-disbanded Compton Police Department.
“Newly discovered evidence suggests that a person other than Marco is guilty of the attempted murder of Jose Garcia,” Spillane wrote.
The victim — who was hospitalized for 23 days as a result of the attack — was shot in the chest after arriving at a Mepco gas station at the corner of Acacia Avenue and Alondra Boulevard to fill the tank of his truck, then crawled under a vehicle for cover as the gunman fired multiple times.
Compton police investigators subsequently determined the license plate number of the Ford Bronco in which the gunman escaped had been sold by a car dealer to Contreras, who insisted he was home sleeping after working the graveyard shift as a security guard at a Bellflower hospital, according to Spillane’s letter.
Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocence took up Marco Contreras’ case.
“We just are grateful that the District Attorney’s Office and the sheriff’s (department) went ahead and did that full investigation. There are people in custody who will have to face the crime that they did that Marco spent the time in prison for,” Laurie Levinson, who founded Los Angeles Project for the Innocent, said in March 2017.
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