Two men exonerated in 2003 drive-by killing

Wave Staff and Wire Reports

LOS ANGELES — Two men who served roughly 20 years behind bars for a 2003 drive-by shooting in South Los Angeles that they did not commit have been formally exonerated and released from prison.

Jofama Coleman and Abel Soto were 20 and 15 years old, respectively, when they were arrested and charged in connection with the May 10, 2003, shooting that killed Jose “Chino” Robles, 16. Prosecutors said at the time the killing was carried out in retaliation for an earlier confrontation that allegedly involved Robles and Coleman’s teen brother.

In 2007, Soto was sentenced to 72 years to life in prison for allegedly firing the deadly shots. District Attorney George Gascón said Feb. 28 the conviction came “despite the fact that no one could identify the shooter at the time of the shooting.”

Coleman was sentenced to 25 years to life after being convicted of driving the white van that was used in the drive-by shooting.

“The witness that identified Mr. Coleman as the driver recanted his trial testimony in 2023, saying he had never actually seen Mr. Coleman driving the van,” Gascón said at a press conference. “From the beginning, Mr. Coleman and Mr. Soto maintained their innocence, declaring it through every stage of the litigation.”

Following a petition last year by their attorney, Ellen Eggers, the case was reviewed. In January, a judge declared Soto factually innocent of the crime. Coleman was declared factually innocent Feb. 27.

“This case is a tragedy of many proportions,” Gascón said. “Our duty is not only to correct the wrongs of the past but to ensure that fairness prevails and that we learn from our past mistakes.” 

Coleman, speaking alongside Gascón at the downtown news conference, said that now he is free, he hopes to become a lawyer “to help other innocent people in prison.”

“My journey has been one of unimaginable hardship, but it is also a testament to the strength of the human spirit, the power of resilience and unwavering support of those who believed in justice,” he said. “I found myself incarcerated for a crime I did not commit. The weight of that injustice was a burden that I carried every day but refused to let it define me.

“Behind prison walls I faced challenges that tested my resolve, but with determination and the support of remarkable individuals and organizations, I emerged victorious.”

Eggers, the attorney for Coleman and Soto, called her two clients “heroes …  never faltering in their quest for justice.”

“Jofama transformed his cell into a classroom to master the law itself,” she added. “Their indomitable spirit, coupled with Jessica Jacobs’ essential support, unraveled the truth that set them free. I’m grateful to Head Deputy Juan Mejia, Supervising D.A. Amy Wilton, and the extraordinary [Deputy District Attorney] Lara Bazan, whose diligent and insightful efforts paved the way for swift justice. 

“Finally, I am deeply grateful to District Attorney George Gascón for righting this profound wrong. Today is a testament to the power of unwavering resolve and the relentless pursuit of justice,” Eggers said.

The killing occurred May 10, 2003, around 9 p.m. Robles was walking down the street near his house in Los Angeles when a van pulled up near him and an individual fired a gun at him. Witnesses reported seeing an individual then exit the van and shoot Robles multiple times. 

“Our hearts also go out to Jose Robles’ family, who have suffered immeasurably through this tragedy and injustice,” Gascón said. “To everyone impacted, we offer not just words of regret, but a solemn promise of our unwavering pursuit of truth and justice. Together, we forge ahead in our quest for justice, acknowledging the pain endured but steadfast in our resolve.”

The exonerations mark the first and second exonerations announced by Gascón this year. They are the ninth and 10th exonerations since he became district attorney in December 2020.

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