Pictured: Alma Ixta with her son Ignacio Ixta Junior and his son, Andrew Ixta, just minutes after Junior was released from Ventura County Jail after being exonerated from an attempted murder conviction. April 13, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers
by Kimberly Rivers
In the late afternoon of Tuesday, April 13, Ignacio Ixta Junior was finally released from Ventura County Jail after 11 years in prison for a crime he always said he didn’t do. His family was waiting just outside the jail.
Ixta’s release came a day after a hearing that took place on Monday, April 12, lasting less than 10 minutes, in which Hon. David Hirsch threw out a 2010 attempted murder conviction and ordered Ixta to be freed. His release was delayed, however, by a second hearing that was set for Tuesday afternoon to complete some paperwork related to a separate case from 2009 involving time Ixta served on probation.
Online Update: After Tuesday’s hearing, Philip Dunn, Ixta Junior’s defense attorney, called Hirsch “courageous” for removing all barriers in the court record to Ixta’s prompt release. Ixta appeared in person on Tuesday in Courtroom 26.
The Tuesday hearing was required due to what Hirsch called an “oversight” from 2009, which had left orders in the docket that Ixta was to serve time on probation and community service. But Hirsch found those orders “should have been vacated” and that in light of the attempted murder case against Ixta being dismissed, the old orders have “no useful purpose,” and he ordered them stricken and vacated and that Ixta be “discharged” and “released from custody.”
But close to two hours later Ixta was still being held, over 24 hours after his conviction had been reversed and his case dismissed. Staff at the Ventura County Jail said there was an issue with paperwork at the state level and one told Dunn they “don’t care what the judge said,” the paperwork was needed.
Captain Eric Buschow, public information office for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the county jail, said the time it took for Ixta to be released was not a “delay” but just indicated the “checks and balances” in the process for verifying whether someone being released was “wanted in any other counties,” for example. When asked whether Ixta may have to spend another night in custody if he was not released by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Buschow said he was not aware of the issue of Ixta’s release but that the jail can release inmates 24 hours a day.
About a half hour later, an officer who told the Ixta family and Dunn that he was in charge of the “facility” at the time said Ixta would be released within 30-45 minutes regardless of whether the proper paperwork from the state was in hand. End of online update.
Charges dismissed in short, decisive hearing on April 12
Just prior to Monday’s hearing, a group of about 35 people gathered in support of Ixta’s release. The crowd would grow to about 100 people by the time the hearing was over.
Courtroom 26 at Ventura County Superior Court was quiet on Monday as Ixta’s parents, Ignacio Ixta Senior and Alma Ixta, investigator Natalie Cherot and a few members of the press waited for the hearing to begin. It was already starting about 15 minutes late.
A tall figure came through the door on the far side of the courtroom: Philip Dunn, Ixta’s criminal defense attorney, accompanied by appeal attorney Andy Wolf.
As Dunn approached Ixta’s parents, he leaned down and said, “This is over.” There was an exhale. He explained that he had been in chambers with Erik Nasarenko, Ventura County District Attorney (VCDA), who told him the office would not seek a retrial and that Ixta would be released.
The VCDA confirmed the week before that the office agreed Ixta’s conviction should be reversed, but had not yet responded to Ixta’s request that the entire case be dismissed in light of the evidence uncovered by the pro bono team (“Reversal of Conviction”, Kimberly Rivers, VC Reporter, April 8, 2021).
Ixta was attending the hearing via Zoom, and his image was projected onto a wall in front of the judge. Prior to the judge entering the courtroom, Dunn asked if he could speak with Ixta. He explained to Ixta that normally he’d be able to meet privately with him before the hearing, but that due to the pandemic that was not taking place. He said that after the hearing, he’d have a private conversation with him.
Hirsch entered the courtroom. Ixta could only see the judge, but he could hear all the attorneys when they spoke.
The first item discussed on the record was Hirsch confirming the victim in the matter had been informed of the pending conviction reversal and potential for Ixta to be released. Taylor Waters, senior deputy with the VCDA, confirmed the victim had been notified.
Hirsch then granted the relief sought by the writ of habeas corpus submitted on behalf of Ixta in March 2020, resulting in a reversal of the 2010 judgement against him and then to set aside the conviction. A writ of this type is a recourse granted to all prisoners by the United States Constitution to demand a hearing in court to review whether the person is being wrongfully imprisoned.
Waters read from a statement that confirmed the office supported the granting of the writ because information held at the time of the trial by law enforcement was not provided to the defense. Waters confirmed that evidence “should” have been provided to the defense and that their “review of the matter confirmed that the search warrants undermined the credibility of the lead prosecuting witness.”
Next, Hirsch directed a question to “the people – how do you want to proceed on the underlying matter?”
Waters said the office had “carefully reviewed and evaluated all the available evidence in our possession,” which included “both the trial evidence as well as new evidence,” and that “given the state of the available evidence, the passage of time, the people are unable to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt at retrial and therefore [are asking] the court to dismiss pursuant to penal code section 1385.”
“I take it there is no objection,” confirmed Hirsch. Hearing none, he said, “That motion will be granted.”
At that moment the judgment was vacated and all charges against Ixta were dismissed. He would not be retried. “The defendant is ordered to be released by the court.” His mother sobbed.
Waters told the judge the VCDA would work to ensure “Mr. Ixta be released from custody forthwith.” Alma and Ignacio Senior hugged, and then Alma embraced Cherot.
“Hiccup” causes delay in release
All signs indicated that Ixta Junior would be released on Monday. He was in Ventura County Jail, having been transferred from Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California prior to the hearing. But almost right away there appeared to be a problem. The paperwork was not going as smoothly as hoped. Dunn explained that it’s fairly rare for Pelican Bay to have to process a conviction reversal and subsequent release.
Following the April 12 hearing, Dunn, Wolf and the Ixtas were in communication with staff at the Ventura County Jail building next to the courthouse over the next several hours pressing for the “immediate” release the court had ordered.
Ixta Junior’s son, Andrew, now 14, said he felt “amazing” knowing that his father was being released and that he’d “give him a really big hug” when he sees him.
Dunn spoke to the crowd and encouraged the public to “care enough for another human being” to help prevent this type of injustice from taking place, and to “love your neighbor.” He made a point of applauding Nasarenko’s role in bringing the reversal about, saying he is a DA who “truly cares about justice.”
At about 5:40 p.m. Commander Rob Davidson with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office came out to speak with the Ixtas and Dunn. He told them there was a “hiccup” at the “state” but that their office would do all they could to help the family. Ixta would end up spending Monday night in custody, although his family was taken in for a visit.
Online Update: The “hiccup” Davidson was referring to were the issues Hirsch dealt with at the Tuesday hearing.
“It was 11 years too long,” said Alma as she waited for news about her son’s release on Monday.
Reflecting on the path the case took, she added that “it was a team effort,” but that Wolf’s role was key. “He practically sold himself to us, he wanted to help us.”
Wolf helped the family for several years, preparing appeals and the habeas corpus packets submitted — all free of charge. When deciding whether to hire an attorney or work with Wolf, she told her son, “You need an attorney that believes in your innocence. That is what Andy did.”