My Funny Alibi

Juan Catalan spent the second half of his year in 2003 sweating a possible death sentence in an L.A. County lockup over a crime he says he didn’t commit. Earlier in the year, 16 year old Martha Puebla testified against Catalan’s older brother, fingering him for a murder rap over a gang slaying she witnessed. Months later, Puebla mysteriously wound up dead. Calling her death,”retribution killing” prosecutors insisted payback for Puebla’s testimony was Catalan’s motive, and with an eyewitness putting him at the scene, the case seemed like a home run.

Initially, Catalan balked at the charges, telling investigators he was at a Dodger’s game when she was killed. His alibi intact, Catalan furnished police with a pair of ticket stubs as proof, but struck out; apparently, the D.A. wasn’t playing ball.

Desperate for a break, Catalan’s lawyer started scanning the stadium’s surveillance video to see if he could somehow spot his client somewhere in the crowd. Like trying to find a needle in a stack of needles, the agonizing hours he spent sifting through hours of raw surveillance feed turned out to be fruitless.

“Cameras are there to protect you,” says Tom, owner of CCTV Services Inc. “A recent case involving a N.Y. convenience store clerk and an undercover police officer posing as a minor, proves that video evidence isn’t always about catching someone doing something-sometimes it’s about capturing what didn’t happen. Accused of selling alcohol to a minor, it was the clerk and his word versus the word of a cop. Turns out, the unearthed video backed up the clerk’s claims-no alcohol was sold.”

His hopes evaporating, Catalan’s lawyer switched to scrutinizing a recording of the local t.v. network’s coverage of the game, but still hadn’t hit pay-dirt. And then, miraculously, his client suddenly remembered that an HBO camera crew for Larry David’s hit series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” was not only at the stadium, but was filming its latest episode, “The Car Pool Lane,” in the same section as Catalan, just a few feet away from where he was seated.

Watching the episode, in which David hires a prostitute so he can use the H.O.V. lane to avoid traffic on his way to the Dodger game, it wasn’t until he saw his client in the show’s outtakes that Catalan’s lawyer unleashed his enthusiasm. Subsequently set free, Catalan received a $320,000 settlement from the state of California.

If it’s a question between more cameras or less cameras in the public square, I vote for the former. News cameras, television cameras, surveillance cameras, cell phone cameras, traffic cameras, it’s a sea of eyes out there, and I’m sure Juan Catalan would agree that an unthinking camera is a far superior eye witness.

Related: “Act Like You’re Being Filmed (Because You Are)

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