LOS ANGELES -- A man who spent 11 years in prison for a series of Los Angeles armed robberies he didn't commit was exonerated Tuesday after prosecutors agreed he had been wrongly convicted.
A courtroom full of family members and friends erupted in applause as Ruben Martinez Jr. was found innocent and walked free from Los Angeles Superior Court.
The rare reversal of fortune after all appeals had been exhausted came about after Martinez's wife, who had been a secretary for the Sheriff's Department, and a close friend who was a retired homicide detective prevailed on prosecutors to review the case. Investigators then tracked down alibi witnesses who said Martinez was at work during some of the crimes that were believed to have been committed by a serial robber.
A jubilant Martinez, 49, said his prayers had been answered and he was not a bitter man. He thanked his wife, Maria, for not only standing by him but pursuing his freedom vigorously.
"I did not do this time by myself," Martinez said after the brief court hearing. "My family did time. My wife did time with me, did the 11 years with me. I couldn't do it on my own, on my own strength. It was God's strength that got me through this."
District Attorney Jackie Lacey apologized to Martinez for the injustice that led to a 47-year prison sentence. Lacey said a "series of unfortunate and ultimately tragic circumstances" led to the conviction and it was her job to right the wrong.
It was only the third time her office has supported vacating a conviction after establishing a unit in 2015 to review wrongful conviction claims. Martinez's case was the first time one of those claims had been brought by lay people — the prison inmate and his wife — and not a lawyer.
"Mr. Martinez and his wife proved to be unstoppable in their pursuit of his freedom," Lacey said. "Throughout this terrible experience, the two were never deterred by setbacks and instead demonstrated remarkable strength and dignity through what I imagine must have been a dark time in their lives."
Martinez had been convicted in 2008 of five robberies at the same auto paint shop in the city's Boyle Heights neighborhood between 2005 to 2007. In all but one of those robberies, the robber wore a mask.
Martinez said he had no regrets for rejecting a plea deal that would have led to a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence.
"I would have been standing for a lie," Martinez said. "If it happened again, I would stand up for the truth."
His first trial ended with a deadlocked jury. Two of the victims testified at that trial that Martinez was not the robber, said defense attorney Angela Berry, who was appointed for the exoneration hearing.
Berry said those witnesses were not called by the prosecution or the defense in the subsequent trial that ended with a conviction. Evidence that Martinez had been at work was not adequately presented at trial, attorneys said.
Five appeals with state and federal courts were all rejected.
Lacey said that former homicide detective Catherine Wills had tried for years to get her interested in the case, telling her about Martinez before she was elected in 2012.
"She grabbed me by the hand and had a strong hold and she said there is an innocent man in prison," Lacey recalled from her first meeting with Wills. "You know, a lot of people say those things to you as DA. ... But she was unwavering. She didn't say it one time she said it multiple times."
Wills said Maria Martinez had been the secretary in the homicide unit and she knew she wouldn't be married to a criminal. Maria Martinez referred to Wills as "mama" and Wills' husband stepped in to give Maria away at the altar when she wed Ruben Martinez.
After Wills' husband died, Wills worked with Maria Martinez to review all the evidence in the case, compile it in a binder several inches thick and present the case in person to the conviction review unit.
"I told 'em, 'Look, I'm 82 years old now. And I'm not going to die until Ruben Martinez gets out of prison,'" a grateful Wills said.