Agustine Lizama and his long-time girlfriend
On Sunday, the New York Times ran an interesting and alarming story about a man who was a witness to a gang murder and, at first testified as to the shooters’ identity in front of grand jury, then got spooked and—to use the term favored by frustrated cops and prosecutors—he pissed backwards.
But when the case came to trial, with a phalanx of gang members glaring at him in open court, Mr. Roe changed his story, testifying that he had heard the shots but never saw who fired them. The two suspects were acquitted.
Now Mr. Roe is the criminal defendant, facing up to three years in prison for the sin of being scared silent…… His is one of a small but growing cadre of cases nationally in which angry and frustrated prosecutors are turning the tables on witnesses who recant.
Getting witnesses to testify in gang trials has become a huge problem nationwide, and nowhere is the problem greater than in Los Angeles.
The subject came up in a dramatic way just last week when I guest lectured at a class at the UCLA School of Public Affairs taught by my friend, Jorja Leap who, in addition to being a terrific pal, is an international expert in crisis intervention and trauma response—and Antonio Villaraigosa’s policy adviser on gangs.
Anyway, Jorja made her class read my gang book, and wanted me to give her students some kind of follow-up talk. To make things a bit more interesting, I asked three of the guys I know who work at Homeboy Industries to show up too and be part of the lecture.
The three men—Joseph Holguin, Agustin Lizama, and Luis Perez—are all in their early 30’s and all former homeboys with fairly harrowing personal stories to tell. I also know them to be extremely dynamic and articulate. So when they arrived at the lecture hall, I simply turned the floor over to them, and stood back to watch the show.
They got up and talked, one after the other, about their respective pasts—about horrifically traumatic childhoods, about the lure and familial comfort of the gang, about when they’d been shot, or shot at. They described the horror of seeing young friends shot and killed, talked about time spent in jail or prison, about struggles with drugs and/or alcohol….and then they each explained how and why they’d been able to climb out of the downward trajectory their gang pasts had predicted, to finally begin to build lives with promising futures.
All three spoke with passion, intelligence and candor about where they’ve been, what they’ve done wrong, and how good it feels to finally be doing things right.
The last of the three to speak was Augustine—a bright, gentle man who’d been one of the stars of the poetry project I wrote about earlier. (Actually all three were involved, in one way or another.) Agustine talked about how he’d had his hand shot off at the forearm when he was 12-years old. How he’d been stabbed at 13.
And then he told a story I’d never heard before.
Agustine told how when he was 16, he’d happened, purely by accident, to be in the general vicinity of a gang murder. The police never found the real shooter but instead arrested sixteen year-old Agustine for the crime.
Agustine said that, although he had nothing whatever to do with the murder, he’d been close enough to see who had actually done the shooting.
“But I couldn’t snitch,” he told the lecture hall full of UCLA students. “And they were going to try me as an adult. So,” he said softly, “at age sixteen, I was prepared to go to prison for the rest of my life for something I didn’t do, rather than talk. That’s how it is when you’re in a gang.”
Agustine was locked up for two and a half years while he fought the case, eventually taking it to trial. As luck would have it, he drew a decent public defender and beat the murder case. Obviously, it could have easily turned out otherwise.
After the guys finished their personal accounts, the spellbound UCLA students peppered them with questions for another half hour. Finally, when the class was nearly over, a young woman stood up and asked the group one last question:
“What if a homeboy came to you for help and advice,” she asked, “and, like Agustine, he was accused of a murder he didn’t commit? What would you tell him to do?”
The three homeboys glanced at each other. It was Joseph who stepped forward first. “Unless I knew I could move that person out of state to a, like, really safe place, like Missouri or something, I don’t think I could advise him to talk.” The others nodded. “I’d say the same thing,” said Augustine. “I’d try to find a way to get him very far away, or it just wouldn’t be safe. Seriously. It just wouldn’t.”
What the guys didn’t say is that, when it comes to a homeboy—or a former homeboy— being a witness—”snitching”—isn’t just a risk, it something that is almost guaranteed to have mortal consequences. And the scariest threat of retaliation isn’t from the homeboys or the gang members on trial. The real fear, for someone who’s ever been in a gang, no matter how peripherally, is of retaliation from the Mexican Mafia.
To illustrate, let me tell you one more story.
About ten or fifteen years ago a young homeboy I knew quite well—a 16-year-old— was shot in the back in a gang incident, and it appeared that he was going to die. Since he figured he was dead anyway, and he was pretty unhappy about dying at such a young age, when LAPD officers came to interview the homeboy, he blurted to them the name of the gangster who’d done the shooting.
But then he didn’t die. He recovered.
Naturally, the cops and the D.A. dragged the young man to trial to testify against his assailant. But at that point, he did what the guy in the NY York Times story did,. He said he couldn’t remember. And the shooter beat the case.
But the damage, from a “snitching” perspective, was already done.
Eventually the paperwork from the original police investigation filtered into the jail system (as, for some reason, it always does)…and the EME put what is called a “green light” on the young homeboy— meaning a death sentence. Worse, they told his own homeboys it was their job to carry out the deed, and if they didn’t there would be….consequences. The whole gang would have a “light.”
Father Greg Boyle heard through the grapevine about the boy’s dilemma so (with my help, as it happens) conspired to get the kid away from East LA to stay with a middle-class family in another part of Los Angeles. Eventually he managed to leave Southern California altogether. After a few years, the issue blew over. Now he has three kids, a great wife, a fabulous job and has recently purchased a house.
But, as with Agustine, the story could have gone a very different direction. I still remember the times when it was unclear if the kid would live through the weekend—just for saying who tried to kill him, and then retracting it.
So, as I listened to the pretty college girl ask the former homeboys that very smart question, I couldn’t help but silently turn the same question on myself: If young homeboy I knew and liked was arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, and he knew who actually did the deed, what would I advise him to do?
Sadly, I didn’t have to deliberate for even a second.
I’d tell him I’d help him find a good lawyer.