In 1998, Jaime Ponce recalls being a 19-year-old Mexican immigrant with two jobs – one in a restaurant, one in a bakery. He says he worked a lot and was happy to finally have a day off.
Ponce went to a party being held by a friend of a friend in Sylmar and got drunk, he says. It was long after midnight when he decided to lie down in a back bedroom.
Next thing he knew, LAPD officers were rousing him out of his sleep and placing him in a lineup of other young Latinos outside, he says. Police were looking for the driver of a car involved in a drive-by shooting hours earlier in which nobody was hit. They already had arrested the passenger.
"They took me to a lineup," Ponce says. "And the victim, he described somebody else."
Ponce figured it was all over.
"Two days later they arrested me," Ponce says in an interview with KPCC. Another victim had surfaced and fingered him as the driver.
The case has many of the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction, says Paula Mitchell, legal director of Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent.
The eyewitness later said he was pressured by police, she says. A confession presented to the jury was in English, even though Ponce only spoke Spanish at the time. Then there was the bad defense attorney – hired for $5,000 by his father, who figured a private lawyer would be better than a public defender.
"She didn’t interview a single witness," Mitchell says of the lawyer. "She didn’t see Jaime even once while he was in jail. She met him for the first time on the day trial started."
"At Jaime’s trial, his lawyer essentially put on no defense at all," says Adam Grant, director of the Loyola project. "Instead, she told the jury during her opening argument that Jaime was the driver and the shooter. She basically left the jury no choice but to convict Jaime."
The lawyer was later reprimanded by the state bar association in another case for failing to communicate effectively with Spanish-language clients, says Mitchell.
Ponce was convicted and sentenced to 47 years to life in prison on a series of charges, including conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder, plus extra time for being identified as a gang member by an expert presented by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. Ponce maintains he was never affiliated with any gang.
Ponce had a series of bad lawyers. One was later suspended by the bar association; another took money from his parents but never filed anything in court; a third was suspended from practicing as he was trying to get more money from his parents, says Mitchell.
"My father went from one lawyer to the next to the next to the next – they just took our money," Ponce says.
In 2015, Loyola’s innocence project stepped in after receiving a letter from Ponce’s parents pleading for help. By then, an appeals court had issued an order to show cause asking Ponce to justify why he deserved a hearing – a hopeful sign.
After Loyola lawyers and law students poured over the case file and re-interviewed witnesses, they took Ponce’s plea to the very prosecutors who argued he was the shooter. This month, L.A. prosecutors agreed to support Ponce’s release in a deal that sent him back to Mexico on April 11, after nearly 20 years behind bars. He was in the U.S. illegally.
Ponce is the third man in the past month whose release was secured by the Loyola project. Marco Contreras spent 20 years locked up for a shooting in Compton in which he was not involved. A judge declared him factually innocent. The project also won the release of Andrew Leander Wilson, who served 32 years in prison after being convicted of a 1984 stabbing. A judge threw out his conviction.
For his first 11 years in custody, Ponce was in the state’s most notorious prison: Pelican Bay, near the Oregon border. It houses the most violent prisoners and most of the state’s prison gang leaders.
He was beaten several times and forced to join one of the prison gangs, he says in a phone interview from Tijuana.
"After a while, you have to," Ponce says. "Either you participate or you get stabbed – or worse."
Ponce says he tried to kill himself five different times while in prison.
"At some point, you say you don’t want to do it any more," he says.
He was able to keep a little hope through drawing animals and portraits of other inmates.
"It was like my window to freedom," says Ponce, who learned English in prison.
Ponce does not sound bitter. He says he forgives the cop who allegedly pressured the witness, the prosecutors who argued his guilt and all of his bad lawyers.
"Now I have to look forward," says Ponce, who is traveling to Michoacan to see his mother and Cancun to visit his sister. His father, brother and cousins still live in L.A.
During the interview, Ponce thanks Loyola’s Project for the Innocent profusely, and promises to be a good man now that he’s out of prison. Then he stops himself.
"I was always a good man," he says.