Innocence Los Angeles County District Attorney

Four People Exonerated After Decades in Prison for Wrongful Murder Convictions

Jofama Coleman (right), Abel Soto (middle), and LA County DA George Gascón (left), during a February 28, 2024 press conference. / Via LA County District Attorney's Office
Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

Four men who lost nearly 80 years to imprisonment combined after being wrongfully convicted of murder, based on faulty eyewitness testimony, have been exonerated in the first two-and-a-half months of 2024.

The first two newly freed men, Jofama Coleman and Abel Soto, were 20 and 15 years old when they were accused of the 2003 murder of 16-year-old Jose Robles in Los Angeles. 

Robles was walking down a street in his neighborhood on the evening of May 10, 2003, when a van pulled up and someone shot Robles multiple times.

By the time the criminal trial concluded in 2007, Coleman was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, and Soto was convicted and sentenced to 72 years and eight months to life.

In 2023, the man who said Coleman had been driving the van recanted the testimony he gave during trial, saying he hadn’t actually seen Coleman.

“Newly discovered evidence has led the LADA to conclude that Mr. Soto and Mr. Coleman were wrongfully identified and are innocent of Mr. Robles’s murder,” according to Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón’s office. 

Soto and Coleman’s attorney, Ellen Eggers, filed an innocence claim with the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in January 2023. The DA’s office and Eggers filed petitions on behalf of Soto and Coleman in January and February 2024. These petitions were closely followed by full factual exonerations, and the men’s release from prison.

“Jofama Coleman and Abel Soto are my heroes, never faltering in their quest for justice. Jofama transformed his cell into a classroom to master the law itself,” Eggers said of her clients during a February 28 press conference. 

“My journey has been one of unimaginable hardship, but it is also a testament to the strength of the human spirit, the power of resilience and unwavering support of those who believed in justice,” Coleman said. 

“To everyone impacted, we offer not just words of regret, but a solemn promise of our unwavering pursuit of truth and justice,” said Gascón. “This ordeal underscores my office’s relentless dedication, through our Conviction Integrity and Habeas units, to righting the wrongs of the past.”

More inaccurate eyewitness testimony

Then, last week, on March 6, an LA Superior Court judge exonerated two more men who lost nearly 40 years combined to imprisonment after they were wrongfully convicted of murder in 2001. 

Ronald Velasquez Jr. had been incarcerated for approximately 23 years before his exoneration allowed his release from prison.

The other exoneree, Abraham Villalobos, spent 15 years in prison. After he was granted parole, the United States deported Villalobos to Mexico, according to Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent (LPI), which represented Villalobos. 

On September 2, 2000, sixteen-year-old Michael Roybal was fatally shot as he was leaving an apartment building in Downey just before 3:00 a.m.

While Velasquez was present at the time of the shooting, he wasn’t the shooter or an accomplice. Villalobos was not even present when the crime occurred. 

The sole eyewitness first couldn’t say who shot Roybal, but later identified Velasquez and Villalobos as the shooters. 

LA Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan declared Velasquez and Villalobos factually innocent on Wednesday, March 6.

The pro-bono investigative efforts of a former Pasadena police officer-turned private detective, Dana Orent, ultimately solved the case, identifying another man, Sergio Torres, as the shooter. Torres reportedly died in a drive-by shooting a month after killing Roybal. 

Orent worked with the Conviction Integrity Unit within the DA’s Office worked with the Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent (LPI), which represented Villalobos, as well as Velasquez’s lawyer, John Hanusz to bring about the exoneration.

“LPI welcomes these collaborations with the CIU to see justice done, and we were inspired by the tenacious work of Mr. Velasquez Jr.’s lawyer John Hanusz and investigator Dana Orent for helping develop with the CIU the new evidence that led to the exonerations of these men,” said Attorney Joe Trigilio, the Judy and Steve Page Executive Director of LPI.

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