After Decades Behind Bars on a Wrongful Conviction, Man to Be Set Free

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

Marco Contreras, a man wrongfully convicted of attempted murder and robbery, is expected to be released Tuesday, after serving two decades of a sentence of life plus seven years.

Contreras, now 41, became a client of Loyola Law School’s Los Angeles Project for the Innocent (LPI) after fighting to have his case reviewed. LPI brought the case to the LA County District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, which agreed to an independent investigation of the case. (The DA’s Unit has its own investigators, but also works with investigators from the LA County Sheriff’s Department.)

“We are thrilled that our client has been found factually innocent and that the court is planning to order his immediate release,” said LPI founder Laurie Levenson, who has represented Contreras since 2012, along with LPI Program Director Adam Grant.

Twenty years ago, an eyewitness to an attempted murder and robbery at a gas station in Compton inaccurately identified Contreras as the assailant.

“Erroneous eyewitness identifications account for about 75 percent of all wrongful convictions in the U.S.,” said Paula Mitchell, LPI legal director.

The DA’s Office, has been able to confirm that Contreras is factually innocent. The individuals suspected of actually committing the 1996 crimes have also been arrested.

In 2013, LPI secured the release of Kash Delano Register, after a team of lawyers and law students successfully argued that the 53-year-old was wrongfully convicted of murder. Register served 34 years behind bars for a crime he did commit. LA Superior Court Judge Katherine Mader found that the prosecution failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense and presented false testimony at trial. Register was 18 when he was arrested for the robbing and murdering a white man in Los Angeles. The black teen was convicted by an all-white jury in 1979.

LPI has several other cases currently in the court system.

LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced the launch of the conviction integrity unit in April of 2015, Since then, the unit has received hundreds of cases. Nine months after launching, the unit had been buried under 730 petitions from individuals declaring their innocence. So far, Contreras’ is only the second case the unit has brought before a judge to be overturned.

The first case was that of Raymond Lee Jennings. In 2009, Jennings was convicted—through circumstantial evidence—of the murder of 18-year-old Michelle O’Keefe in 2000. This January, a judge tossed Jennings’ murder conviction. Jennings spent 11 years behind bars before his release.

Photo credit: Loyola Law School. Project for the Innocent attorneys and students pose with client Kash Register.


  • Has L.A. County District Attorney Lacey considered any modification to the strict criteria which she announced at the inception of her Conviction Review unit?

    For example, D.A. Lacey requires that an applicant for conviction review must have maintained a 100% perfect record of claiming their innocence.

    This condition precludes from review any factually innocent defendant convicted and sentenced under plea bargain.

    An applicant whose record contains any instance of presenting a false confession, whether given voluntarily or coerced, is eliminated from review by D.A. Lacey without regard to factual innocence.

  • RE: Request for Assistance. Case Jorge Armando Covarrubias. A Gross Miscarriage of Justice.

    How Are Efficient American Courts?

    This is a case of injustice and a gross miscarriage of justice of 17 years in the making.

    My brother Jorge Armando Covarrubias, CDCR T23089, was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 30 years to life under the terms of an unknowing and involuntary plea bargain.

    He was arrested and booked on October 08, 2000 by Assault with a Deadly Weapon California PC 245 (A) (1). Court records clearly shows that during a court hearing at the Downey, California Court, Jorge declined a plea bargain of 12 years while being represented by the Los Angeles Public Defender Craig Purcell and assisted by the court interpreter Lucia Daley. However few days later at the Superior Court of Norwalk California, while being represented by Jon A. Divens, SB 145549, (DISBARRED), and assisted by the court interpreter Cecilia Alcaraz, he supposedly agree to enter into a plea deal of 30 years to life.

    Jorge’s conviction and sentence was obtained by fraud and duress. Because the court’s proceedings prior to the “Plea hearing”, during the “Plea Hearing” and “Sentencing hearing” were inaccurately translated by the court interpreter Alcaraz and for the benefit of my brother.

    Jorge was convicted and sentenced by the Hon. John Torribio, under the terms of an unknowing, unintelligent and involuntary plea agreement for the charges of Second Degree Attempted Murder PC664/187 (5 years) plus the gun enhancement, 12022.53 (d)(25 years too life). Total= 30 years to life.
    Jon A. Divens SB 145549, my brother’s trial counsel just admitted he used my brother’s inability to understand English to improperly advised him to enter into a plea bargain of 30 years to life, for a crime he did NOT commit.

    The Honorable Lillian Vega Jacobs, former District Attorney who prosecuted the case presented an affidavit stating that she observed my brother hesitant and reluctant to enter into a plea of guilty, and that she did not believe that Jorge would accept such plea, because that is not a plea at all.

    We have tried unsuccessfuly for 17 years to prove the truth and we don’t know what else to do. All our atempts to show the truth have been denied by the courts due to the statute of time limitations.

    My brother attests that the court intérpreter Cecilia Alcaraz never explained to him the truth in Spanish about court proceedings nor about such plea bargain. He was unable to understand because at that time he was complete iliterate un writing and speaking english.

    At this time we are trying to obtain a declaration from the Court intérpreter, but we have no concrete answer from her. She is afraid of something.

    In the last conversation I had with her, she informed me that the Los Angeles’ County District Attorney Office told her to avoid problems, “Keep her mouth shut,” and not to answer my emails or phone calls. However, we continúe with our figth to show the honest truth.

    The truth IS that my brother’s language inability was used against him, and his Sixth, Fourteenth and Due Process rights were violated.

    It is well known that all the aforementioned rights are protected by the California’s and United States’ constitutions. Therefore, all citizens and foreign citizens should be protected by both constitutions.

    Jorge told me that all he wants is to show the truth, that he is innocent of the charges, that he did not sign nor agree to accept such plea bargain, and to be deported to México.

    We have proof, tangible evidence to show the truth.

    My brother’s case:
    People of California vs Jorge Armando Covarrubias. Superior Court of California, for the County of Los Ángeles. Norwalk Court. Case # VA-061911.

    Please follow the links to see the proof of my brother’s gross miscarriage of justice.

    We will really appreciate your assistance.

    Thank you for your time.

    José Covarrubias

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