In the summer of l988 Manny Mejias, 15, was forging checks, doing drugs and was the wrong crowd. His parents worked long hours, didn’t have a clue. Linda, Manny’s sister and confidante, the only positive influence in his life, left for college.
On Feb. 12,1988 Manny helped commit a murder. I was his lawyer.
Two friends of Manny, George, 18, and Dave, 17, asked his help to get revenge on a fellow student they said had cheated them in a drug deal. Even though he didn’t know the victim Manny agreed. I asked him why, “When a homie asks for help . . .”
That night a body was found strangled and beaten.
The three boys were arrested almost immediately. They had no plan to cover their tracks. George went to county jail. The other two being under 18 went to juvie. Juvenile court only has jurisdiction until age 18.
If tried as a juvenile, the maximum penalty for any crime, including murder was incarceration in a juvenile facility until age 18. If tried as an adult, the maximum penalty was life in prison or the death penalty. The US Supreme Court has since ruled juveniles cannot be executed.
Juvenile court rooms are small and have none of the formality of Superior court. The day of his hearing to determine if he will be tried as an adult, the room was filed with people on Manny’s side: his parents, extended family, girlfriend, teachers, coaches, and people from his church. Manny watched them speak about him. At that moment he realized he wasn’t alone. “I could have reached out to any of these people and they would have helped me.” That realization changed his life.
The judge ruled Manny would be tried as an adult.
Dave agreed to testify against the other two. In exchange he pled to manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years. George was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 25 years.
I first met Manny at the County jail in a section set aside for juveniles. Manny was good looking even in a jail jumpsuit. He spoke like a gangbanger, but I never felt any meanness in him. He expressed concern for his parents. He was polite, but answered questions in a vague way. He showed no emotion when he told me how he and the other two boys lured the victim into the car and killed him. It sounded like he was describing a movie. He never denied his part in the murder.
The Pima County Attorney’s Office refused to offer Manny a plea. It was a high profile case. We had no choice but to go to trial. Sometimes witnesses change their testimony, disappear or for some other reason the states’ case falls apart. I wasn’t hopefully. Manny couldn’t testify. He wasn’t sympathetic. He also had two convictions for stealing checks.
That trial was more than 30 years ago. Since then I represented other teens charged with murder including two girls. Became a judge. Retired. I stayed in touch with Manny as he changed, became a model inmate, married his high school sweetheart in prison, was released, worked as a janitor and finally got his dream job mentoring young men in trouble. Today Manny and his wife are friends of ours.
Many of the details of his trial have faded.
I remember how nervous I was. Sylvia Lafferty, the state’s attorney was extremely competent. The state’s evidence was compelling. Worse, the victim had been a star at an inner-city high school. He’d won a scholarship to Stanford.
My husband, a law professor, co-tried this case with me. Trial was about to begin when the bailiff walked into the courtroom. “Who took my chair? Did someone move my chair,” he spoke loudly. Everyone but me knew it was a big no-no to ‘use his chair.’ He glared at me as I asked my husband to get up. Not a good omen.
The trial went quickly for a murder case. The prosecutor’s case came off without a hitch. Then came our turn.
George, the most culpable co-defendant, had told police, “Manny was just there; he wasn’t part of the planning, he didn’t even know the guy.” He’d have been a great defense witness, but we couldn’t call him. George was legally unavailable. If called to testify he would take the 5th.
Since George was unavailable, we wanted to read his statement to the jury. The state argued it was hearsay. We’d found a case on point that held that George’s statements were admissible.
The Judge denied our motion. But we knew the judge had committed reversal error. We’d have another chance.
The jury came back. Guilty of first degree murder. We weren’t surprised.
Manny was sentenced to 25 years. We appealed.
Time passed. I tried other cases, my husband taught classes. The appellate process is slow. Because Manny was convicted of first degree murder his case bypassed the Court of Appeals and was heard by the Arizona Supreme Court.
Approximately 18 months later, the court issued its decision. Manny’s case was reversed.
George’s statements should have been admitted.
TO BE CONTINUED (Barbara is the author of Dog Days, 2013 and Anne Levy’s Last Case, 2014 available at Amazon.com)