For six years, Manuel Rodriguez sat in a Ventura County jail cell, often scribbling on his drawing pad or reading any book he could get his hands on.
Rodriguez was 19 when he was arrested in August 2007 and charged as a co-defendant in the Santa Paula shooting death of 27-year-old Edgar Flores.
Prosecutors said Rodriguez was in a truck driven by a friend. Rodriguez’s cousin Paul Carrillo was in the back seat of the truck when he shot Flores, said to be a rival gang member, six times in front of Flores’ Santa Paula home on Aug. 24, 2007.
The defense said evidence on Rodriguez’s involvement was lacking, and a judge agreed.
Almost six years to the day of his arrest, Rodriguez heard three words he thought he never would: You are free.
Months after he was acquitted of all charges, Rodriguez spoke to The Star about his life in jail, leaving the past behind and moving on.
“Jail changes you,” said Rodriguez, now 25. “Even now, and I’m out ... I sometimes feel trapped. There were only two options: go home free or the max (sentence). I had to prepare myself. Inside there, you can’t show weakness.
“But now, I’m slowly adapting and getting used to things. It’s been hard sometimes.”
Superior Court Judge James Cloninger acquitted Rodriguez on Aug. 29 after ruling that there was too little evidence to substantiate a verdict against him were the defense to appeal.
The trial was the second for Rodriguez and Carrillo, who was convicted of first-degree murder with special enhancements. Cloninger sentenced Carrillo to life in prison in October.
During the trial, prosecutors said Rodriguez’s DNA was found on ammunition boxes and the gun used to kill Flores.
In his motion for acquittal, defense attorney Ron Bamieh said prosecutors failed to present a credible witness who could place Rodriguez in the vehicle. Bamieh also argued Rodriguez was not involved in the exchange leading up to the shooting.
“There was never any evidence that he was there at the time of the shooting, and even if he was there, there is still no evidence that he did anything but sit there,” said Bamieh, who represents The Star on First Amendment issues.
Still in shock
Rodriguez declined to discuss the night of the slaying but conceded he was surrounded by gangs all his life.
He said although he did not want to get his hopes up for acquittal, he tried his best to stay positive for his family, namely his mother, Martha.
Sitting with her son in Bamieh’s Ventura office, Martha Rodriguez said having her “Manny” back home was still surreal. She said she and her husband, Manuel Rodriguez Sr., rarely missed an opportunity to visit their eldest son in jail but that the stress of the trial was hard on her three other sons.
“The day (he was acquitted), I think I was just in shock,” Martha said. “I am still in shock sometimes when I see him walk through the door. We have been through a lot these past six years. My son was taken away from me and we can’t make up for that lost time.
“As a parent, you can try to do things to move on, but you really can’t because he was not there. Part of me died when he was in jail.”
Rodriguez said he has not only had to catch up on quality time with his family but also on things most people take for granted.
In a public restroom, he was dumbfounded when he tried to wash his hands. Gone were the knobs of sink faucets, replaced by sensors and automatic models.
“I told a guy, ‘I don’t want to be rude, but how do you turn the water on?’ ” Rodriguez said. “I just felt awkward.”
Rodriguez said he still wakes up at 4:30 a.m., the usual time the lights go on at the main county jail. He also catches himself asking his parents for permission to get snacks from the refrigerator or go outside.
“I’m glad to see my brothers ... and they really trip out, too, because they say I’m just more quiet, more respectful,” Rodriguez said. “My mom says: ‘This is your house. You can do what you want.’ ”
Holding on to hope
Rodriguez said he started losing hope by the third year of his incarceration. When things looked bleak, he would escape by drawing or reading books such as Robert McCammon’s post-apocalyptic novel “Swan Song.”
The weekly visits from his parents, however, sometimes meant keeping up appearances, he said.
“I kept my mind focused on being in there, because I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” Rodriguez said. “I would just listen to (my mom) and let her believe I would be going home. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings so I just kept it in.”
He said he did learn from other inmates who had spent years regretting their decisions. He took to heart a conversation he had with an older inmate.
“He told me: ‘If you get a chance, do good and get away from everything. Do what you never had a chance to do before.’ Now that I have my chance, I’ve been doing things I’ve never done before.”
Rodriguez said he has considered Bamieh’s advice to go back to school. He is looking for a job and helping his parents run the household.
Soon after his acquittal, the family decided to move out of Santa Paula. The trial also caused family friction as Rodriguez’s cousin faced the murder charges alone and was eventually convicted.
Rodriguez said he spoke briefly to Carrillo in a holding cell before he was transferred for release.
“I hugged him and just told him to keep in touch and write,” Rodriguez said.
One thing that has not caused Rodriguez problems is the freedom to eat what he wants, he joked. He has gained more than 25 pounds since his release in August.
Rodriguez said he wants others who have been wrongly accused to maintain their faith.
“I wish them the best and wish them to get home like me,” he said. “I want to tell them: Never give up hope.”