Mark Diaz Bravo

Misidentified and wrongly convicted by a mental patient

Convicted in 1990 of raping a twenty-seven-year-old mental patient at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California, Mark Diaz Bravo was exonerated four years later by DNA. In 1998, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge awarded Bravo nearly $4 million for the violation of his civil rights. The award was appealed, but Bravo prevailed. When the judgment was paid in 2004, interest brought the total to more than $7 million.

On February 20, 1990, Julie DeLeon, who had been admitted to Metropolitan State for treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, claimed to have been raped on the hospital grounds by Bravo, a thirty-old-year-old psychiatric nurse. The rape claim was suspect because DeLeon had a well-documented history of hallucinations and inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Her identification of Bravo was all the more dubious because she initially said the rapist was named Tony and was Central American. Bravo was neither known as Tony nor was he Central American. He was Mexican, and DeLeon, who was Guatemalan, surely knew the difference. Moreover, Bravo had been in back-to-back staff meetings from 12:55 to 3:10 p.m., spanning the time in which DeLeon claimed the crime occurred.

On February 21, based solely on DeLeon's uncorroborated allegation, Bravo was arrested, questioned, and released. On March 23, however, after conventional blood testing failed to exclude him as the source of biological material on DeLeon's panties and a sheet and blanket on which she claimed the rape had occurred, he was rearrested and charged with rape. To find a lawyer, he turned to the Yellow Pages, where he saw a name he thought "had a nice ring to it" — Steve Neito. Neito accepted the case and, on August 9, requested DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case. Assistant District Attorney Linda Chilstrom opposed the request, labeling it a stalling tactic. Due to a laboratory backlog, the testing would have required a trial delay, which Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge C. Robert Simpson, Jr. refused to allow. Neito then dropped the issue.

When the case went before a jury in October, the defense had been deprived not only of DNA, which could have exonerated Bravo, but also a considerable amount of exculpatory evidence, including reports placing the time of the alleged rape at around 3:00 p.m. — when Bravo had an incontrovertible alibi. Other withheld reports revealed that DeLeon had identified someone else as the rapist — the Central American named Tony — and that another patient had claimed to have been raped under similar circumstances by a man fitting that description five weeks earlier. Also, there was a report stating that DeLeon had recanted her accusation against Bravo to a hospital employee four days after making it.

Without the exculpatory evidence, the jury found Bravo guilty, apparently relying on DeLeon's testimony and the failure of conventional blood testing to absolve him of the alleged crime. Judge Simpson sentenced him to eight years in prison. Bravo appealed, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct, the former stemming mostly from Neito's failure to vigorously pursue pretrial DNA testing, the latter from various comments Assistant District Attorney Chilstrom made during the trial. On September 23, 1993, Bravo lost the appeal. The California Court of Appeal held that Neito's efforts to secure DNA testing had been sufficient and that Chilstrom — although she had been "discourteous to defense counsel, abrasive to the trial court, and insulting to witnesses" — had created no reversible error.

Meanwhile, the Innocence Project of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York had entered the case and, in a state habeas corpus proceeding, persuaded Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James A. Bascue to order DNA testing, to be performed by Cellmark Diagnostics, of Germantown, Maryland. On Christmas Eve 1993, Cellmark reported its results, positively excluding Bravo as the source of the biological evidence in the case. On January 6, 1994, Judge Bascue ordered Bravo's release.

Bravo filed a civil suit against the state, the county, the district attorney's office, various officials involved in the investigation, and his trial attorney, Neito. After he settled his claims against the county defendants for $875,000 and against Neito for $15,000, Bravo dismissed his claims against most of the other defendants. However, his claim against a senior hospital special investigator, Howard Giblin, proceeded to trial before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Florence Marie Cooper.

On April 29, 1998, Cooper found Giblin liable for damages totaling $3,925,976 for "gross abuse of power." According to Cooper, Giblin failed to analyze Bravo's work hours, failed to interview Bravo's co-workers, failed to accept the time of the rape as reported by DeLeon, and failed to review DeLeon's medical records — which revealed that she was "hyper-manic, emotionally unstable, easily excitable, lacking in insight, and likely to confuse fantasies with reality." On February 13, 2004, Bravo received payment. With interest, it came to $7,075,367.82 — a little more than $6,000 for each day he was wrongly imprisoned. After his release, Bravo returned to his family and graduated from Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, California.

— Rob Warden