Pictured: Ignacio Ixta Senior (left) and Ignacio Ixta Junior during a recent visit at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, CA. Photo courtesy of the Ixta family 

by Kimberly Rivers
kimberly@vcreporter.com

On April 12, 2021, a hearing will take place in Ventura County Superior Court at which the Ventura County District Attorney will support Ignacio Ixta Junior’s request that the court throw out the guilty verdict against him as a result of exculpatory evidence.

Ixta had just turned 21 in 2010 when he was found guilty of attempted murder by a jury in Ventura County Superior Court. He was sentenced to 35 years for the Dec. 3, 2009 shooting of Miguel Cortez in Oxnard. Cortez survived and fully recovered from the shooting.

Ixta has served 10 years at the maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California. A pro bono legal defense team, however, has uncovered new evidence implicating the prosecution in a Brady Violation for withholding evidence from the defense, and persevering through denials of appeals and writs of habeas corpus. 

The April 12 hearing is the result of an intrepid and dedicated father who never faltered in seeking the truth of his son’s innocence. 

Mario’s Story

The formation of Ixta’s pro bono team came about, initially, through the viewing of a film. 

Ignacio Ixta Senior and his wife, Alma Ixta, knew their son was innocent. But they did not know where to turn. They left their home in Arizona and moved to Fillmore to be able to visit their son and work for his exoneration. After the couple spent their retirement savings on attorneys they say didn’t help much, a family member told Ixta Senior to watch Mario’s Story, a 2007 documentary by Jeff Werner about Mario Rocha, who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Los Angeles County and ultimately exonerated after a nun investigated his case and uncovered new evidence. 

Ignacio Ixta Junior (center) with parents Alma and Ignacio Senior at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif., November 2019. Photo courtesy of the Ixta family

After watching the film, Ixta Senior said that, “The same thing happened to Junior. I told my wife you need to watch this.” She reluctantly watched the film and said she cried the entire time, knowing her son was experiencing the same things: Rocha was convicted even though he didn’t fit the description given by eyewitnesses of the shooter.

The film inspired Ixta Senior and gave him a pathway forward. “I decided I’m going to find every single person that helped this guy get out of prison and you know what? After a few months I found every single one of them.” After becoming connected to people in the Los Angeles area, “ everything started…I learned what to do and how to do it.” 

“It didn’t make sense to me,” Alma admitted. “My husband really had his mind made up…Thank God for his craziness. In my eyes, all of this has been able to happen… My baby is coming home thanks to him, my husband.”

A vital connection 

Ixta Senior also began his own investigation, eventually making contact with Natalie Cherot, a resident of Ventura and longtime investigative reporter. 

In September 2015, Cherot skeptically agreed to meet the Ixtas for coffee at Starbucks. She said they seemed like really nice people, and they clearly loved their son, but that didn’t mean he was innocent. Ixta Senior convinced Cherot to take the case file home to read, although she made no promises. 

In the file, Cherot zeroed in on the eyewitnesses to the shooting, all of whom gave the same descriptions. There were three men. One, the shooter, was slender, short and dark with a thin face. The second man was very tall and very overweight. None of the eyewitnesses got a good look at the third man, but all said he had light hair and was short.

Cherot asked for photographs of Ixta from different time periods. She wanted to see if he could possibly have matched the description of the shooter. She considered whether narcotics were involved (they often alter someone’s appearance), even though Ixta Junior had no history of drug use. But in viewing the various photos, Cherot said that Ixta Junior “never got tan, he was pale, or he was sunburned.” He was tall but not over 6 feet, and he was not thin; strong looking but “not chubby.” 

“This is really weird. But I don’t know what I’m going to do about this,” Cherot recalled thinking. “Finally the deacon said ‘Come with me to the house, talk to people there where the shooting occured.’” (Cherot calls Ixta Senior “deacon,” in reference to his being an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church.)

Only one of three witnesses asked to testify

In July 2016, she went with Ixta Senior to the site of the shooting and they spoke to an eyewitness, who was also the victim’s brother-in-law. “I showed him a photo of [Junior], ‘Did this guy do it? Is he the shooter?’ ‘No,’ he said. He said the guy who ‘came in and shot my brother-in-law was short, had a thin face and was dark.’” 

Ixta is 5’ 11” and weighs about 180 pounds. Cherot described him as having “high cheekbones, a roundish face, is not overweight and is not dark…he’s pale.”

And here was a family member of the victim, one of the eyewitnesses, adamant that the shooter could not be Ixta Junior. 

In addition, the brother-in-law told Cherot that he told the police, after looking at a pack of photos, “The shooter was not in the headshots. He told the police that. ‘Your guy didn’t do it.’ It was a major red flag that something wrong was going on.”

Something else bothered Cherot: Only the brother-in-law testified at the trial. (He claimed that he told the jury the same thing — that Ixta Junior could not have been the shooter.) As for the other witnesses, “they disappeared,” or the prosecution didn’t call them at trial. 

“All the people interviewed, all the witnesses, never made it to the trial,” Cherot explained. “They were never called to be witnesses. Why the heck would the witnesses to an actual attempted murder not be called to the trial? Why are they missing? They should be there. They saw it!”

Investigative reporter Natalie Cherot, PhD. Photo submitted

As Cherot dug into the case records, she read that the second eyewitness “supposedly moved to Mexico. But he was living three blocks away. Seriously, two minutes away. He told me that he never even knew anyone was looking for him. The defense attorney didn’t try to find him. The DA didn’t try to find him.” 

The third witness was a neighbor who lived 300 yards away from the site of the shooting. “Everybody interviewed her that night,” Cherot said. “I interviewed her three times. She never moved from that house. She never made it to trial, either. She had a very vivid description of what the people looked like. She remembered everything.” 

“And something funny caught my attention that the victim’s brother-in-law said,” Cherot continued. “He said ‘Ignacio didn’t do this. Miguel [Cortez] needs to come back to Oxnard and straighten this out.’” 

Cherot did talk with Cortez, who now lives out of state. He said they convicted the right person. But on the night he was shot, he told police he didn’t know who shot him, and a few days later, when shown photographs of Ixta Junior, he said, “I think so,” when asked if he was the shooter. 

“It took me a while to believe that Ignacio was innocent, to really believe it,” the seasoned reporter admitted. “But when I heard from the first witness and he said this guy did not do the shooting,” and took everything else she had learned into consideration, she became convinced that the wrong man had been convicted.

Blind justice? 

On the night of Dec. 3, 2009, Cortez was shot in the front yard of his residence in the Lemonwood neighborhood in Oxnard. Three eyewitnesses described three men to police that night. None of the eyewitness descriptions matched Ignacio Ixta Junior.

Cortez told police that night he didn’t know who shot him and that it was too dark to see. A few days later he identified Ixta Junior from a “six pack” of photographs provided by police investigators. 

Ixta Junior turned himself in to police on Dec. 22, 2009. He pleaded innocent at trial and has maintained his innocence. 

 At trial, Oxnard Police Department Detective Alex Arnett (now a commander) stated that he included Ixta Junior’s photo in the packet shown to Cortez because he “conducted a background check on Erik Ixta,” who lived across the street from where Cortez was shot, and who was believed to have ties to local gangs, “and found some individuals that he associated with. One of them was — and I don’t know how they’re related, whether they’re brothers or cousins — but I found Ignacio Ixta, as well as the other individuals, that I ultimately included in photo lineups…that’s how I ended up putting the defendant in the photo lineup.” (1)

On Dec. 15, Detective Edward Baldwin interviewed Cortez for a second time. According to an official transcript of the interview, Baldwin indicated that Cortez’s large hospital bills could be reduced through a Victim Restitution Fund, but only if the state felt he was “cooperating” with the investigation. Initially, Cortez told detectives he “couldn’t be sure” Ixta Junior was the shooter. But after Baldwin mentioned the restitution fund, and that the prosecution could explain away Cortez’s initial inability to name the shooter (by saying he was afraid of retaliation to his girlfriend and family), Cortez then provided what the detectives called a “positive ID” of Ixta Junior. 

Ultimately, Ignacio Ixta Junior ended up in the photo lineup shown to Cortez not because any eyewitness, physical evidence or known motive connected him to the shooting, but because he was associated with or related to a man, Erik Ixta, who had ties to a gang and lived across the street from where the shooting took place…and because a detective chose to include that photo in the packet.

Exculpatory evidence

Cherot and Ixta Senior moved ahead, conducting more interviews, including some with former gang members active at the time of the shooting. None knew who Junior was, but most knew Cortez. 

Cherot realized that during the trial the prosecution had been trying to tout Cortez “as this innocent former tagger.” Cherot’s interviews of former gang members confirmed that Cortez was considered “hard” and an active gang member at that time, but they still didn’t have firm evidence.

“After that point I made this case my life. I would get to the bottom of this. By October [2016] I had interviewed all the witnesses. Each time I felt, this is not good.” 

Then the Ixtas and Cherot uncovered something new and unexpected. 

Ixta Senior told the Ventura County Reporter that one of the people they spoke with asked if he was aware of the evidence that implicates Cortez, the victim, in some other shootings. They hadn’t heard that before.

“That was the eye opener,” he said. “This is it.” 

He and Cherot pursued that information, and uncovered new evidence — including three search warrants signed off by the VCDA. One of the warrants related to a Jan. 9, 2008 “Guava Street Shooting,” and names a white Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck owned and driven by Cortez as the vehicle used in the shooting. The warrant names Cortez and calls out his gang affiliation. The truck was impounded. 

This evidence contradicted the prosecution’s assertions in Ixta Junior’s case that Cortez was not an active gang member, and it provided evidence that he was likely to be a target of retaliation from rival gangs. It also showed that the prosecution was aware of this evidence, because it was in their possession. None of that information was ever shared with Ixta Junior’s original defense team, ultimately violating the Brady Rule.

A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland, found that the prosecution is bound by law to disclose any and all evidence, even if it would undermine its case. A failure to do so violates the guarantee of due process in the U.S. Constitution. The point of the Brady Rule is to ensure that trials are fair and conducted in the interest of justice. 

By not sharing information regarding Cortez’s gang affiliations to Ixta Junior’s legal team — evidence that could have helped Ixta Junior’s case — the prosecution committed a Brady Violation. 

Finding counsel

When Cherot decided to devote herself to Junior’s case, “we didn’t have a lawyer. Now we have all these interviews…What am I supposed to do about it?” She had tape recorded evidence, she had the search warrants — now what?

Philip R. Dunn, Attorney at Law. Photo submitted

Cherot reached out to a former public defender who reminded her of a conviction that had been overturned in Santa Barbara. The man wrongfully convicted in that case was also accused of being in a gang called Colonia Chiques, similar to Ixta Junior’s case. The attorney on the Santa Barbara case, Philip R. Dunn, had written a book about the case titled When Darkness Reigns.

“I could not put it down, I read it in a day. I didn’t sleep,” remembers Cherot. “When I finished I called the deacon, ‘these guys are still around, they are now in their 60s and still practicing. We need these guys.’” 

Ixta Senior contacted Dunn, who agreed to have his investigator, Len Newcomb, meet with them and talk to one of the witnesses. 

On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2017, Newcomb and Cherot went to Lemonwood. “When we met [the witness], and the minute we walked out [Newcomb] says, ‘Junior didn’t do this.’ He got his friends Andrew Wolf and Phil [Dunn]” to work on the case pro bono.

Wolf, a longtime criminal appeals attorney, now retired, prepared the paperwork, appeals, writs of habeas corpus and final packet submitted to the VCDA Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in March 2020. 

“This is another case in which law enforcement decided that any old kid from the hood would do. We’ll get this one today and we’ll get the other guy next month,” said Dunn, talking to the Ventura County Reporter on April 1. “That is what really happened here.” 

“Mr. Ixta brought forth the claim” seeking a conviction reversal,” said Taylor Waters, Senior Deputy District Attorney, talking with the VCReporter on April 2. “Our office has agreed he is legally entitled to the reversal of conviction.” 

On April 2, the VCDA released a written statement confirming that the office agrees that the reversal of Ixta’s conviction is the appropriate relief in light of the new evidence. 

According to the statement, the CIU conducted a “comprehensive investigation” when “Ixta brought this newly discovered information to our attention,” and goes on to say the evidence Ixta brought forward from “unrelated investigations…could have been used to impeach the credibility of the prosecution’s key witness.” 

Retrial or dismissal

Waters confirmed that the “key witness” is “the named victim” in the matter: Miguel Cortez. 

Dunn points out the prosecution’s case against Ixta Junior relied on testimony from Cortez, in which he said he was not an active gang member and had never been majorly involved in violent gang activities, but that he had been a “tagger” five years before.   

Waters said the VCDA is “agreeing” with the conviction reversal “based on the existence of potentially exculpatory evidence” that results in Ixta being “entitled legally to a new trial,” and he further clarified that “functionally our agreement has the same consequence” as if the evidence showed someone else committed the crime.

Ignacio Ixta Junior with his son Andrew. Photo courtesy of the Ixta family

In a March 24, 2021 letter to the VCDA, Dunn on behalf of Ixta Junior states that not only should the 2009 conviction be tossed out, but that the new evidence “should compel the dismissal of the case” altogether and the VCDA should reach “the conclusion that Ixta Junior is factually innocent.” (1)

Waters emphasized that the VCDA has not yet decided whether or not there will be a retrial with the new evidence. 

The case can take one of two paths on April 12. If the VCDA seeks a retrial, then the case will be reset for a jury trial with a statutory requirement of 60 days from the date of reversal. “If the case is processed in that fashion,” on April 12, Waters said the court would “address the issue of bail at that time.” But if the case is not going to be retried, “whenever a case is dismissed the defendant is discharged” from custody. 

They can “retry him, or…dismiss the action entirely…They have to decide whether or not based on the new evidence and exculpatory evidence that was withheld do they still have a case,” said Dunn.

Waters was unable to comment specifically on the case and possibility of a retrial because it is now again an active investigation, but he said “our office takes these claims very seriously,” and the case files, police reports and all aspects of the case are reviewed with “a clean set of eyes.” 

Once the CIU determined a conviction reversal was appropriate, they worked with Dunn to expedite the hearing to occur as soon as possible. 

Dunn said if the case is not dismissed it will be set for trial and a pretrial hearing could be set. “If they don’t dismiss it on April 12 my position is that they own it, in other words they are keeping an innocent man in custody…they have all this evidence that he’s innocent.” 

“We can’t be completely happy because we don’t know exactly what is going to happen,” said Alma Ixta on April 1. “We are hoping [the court will] dismiss everything and realize that they have the wrong person.” 

As of April 1, it “remains to be seen what they’re going to do,” said Dunn. “In the highly competitive world of the criminal justice system and jury trials and trying to clear cases with convictions — especially with what was going on in Oxnard at the time, there were so many shootings — it often gets forgotten that the first consideration of the district attorney’s office, and in the system in general, is to do justice and protect the innocent.”

Ixta Junior was transported to Ventura County Jail on Tuesday, March 30, so that he can appear in person at his hearing on April 12 in Ventura County Superior Court.

  1. March 24, 2021 letter to Ventura County District Attorney from Philip R. Dunn on behalf of Ignacio Ixta Jr. Click link to view: Ixta.Ltr. District Attorney (1)