Living With Freedom | Even after being proven innocent, Rafael Madrigal is still awaiting justice from the State of California
Living With Freedom is a special series by MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) that explores the lives of those wrongfully incarcerated after they are exonerated. Through these stories, we hope to give readers an insight into what it takes to start over.
Rafael Madrigal was living the life he had always dreamed of — he and his wife Veronica had just bought a nice house, he had a great job that paid him well and the cherry on the cake was that they had a baby on the way. "I was pushing for a lot of things at the time, it was the way it's supposed to be," he recalls. He was happy until one day, it all changed forever. In July 2000, Madrigal was charged with committing a drive-by shooting in East Los Angeles on behalf of the Ford Maravilla gang, following which he was convicted in 2002 with a prison sentence of 25 years to life.
Sitting in Chino State Prison, he remembers feeling the urge to just get up and go home, which was just six hours away from where he was. "I wanted to be home to my family, my baby and I couldn't do anything about it," he recalls. He would write to his children two to three times a week just so they wouldn't forget him.
Madrigal was picked up from a photo line up that had a picture of him that was at least eight years old. A witness said he resembled the shooter who was described as a fair Hispanic male, aged 18 to 19 years old with short hair. It was as generalized as it could get. "You'll find handfuls of people that fit the description on any given day and yet, there I was," he shares. "There was never one individual that pointed out that I did it for sure — they could only say I resembled the shooter and that's where my nightmare started," he says.
His alibi was iron clad too. At the time of the shooting, Rafael was working 35 miles away at Proactive Packaging and Display in Rancho Cucamonga. His counsel, Andrew Stien never called in Ralph's boss Robert Howards, the plant manager at Proactive Packaging, to testify that he was at work at the time of the shooting.
"I often wondered why all of it was happening to me. To this day, I've asked myself that question — how did I come about in the investigation," he says, his quiet voice slightly losing its cool and bubbling with frustration that sounds like it's been around for a while. "I did alright... I just didn't understand what was going on," he recalls.
He had always been a pretty independent person, he says, moving out by the age of 20, getting a job, his first house and settling down. "Personally, I think there's only one person that can answer that question truthfully and it would have to be the lead detective," he shares. He is referring to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Detective Michael Delmuro who testified against Madrigal at the trial.
From the minute the accusations started to the day he was released, he maintained his innocence and his innocence was what kept him holding on to hope, he says. "I am going to come home," he recalls telling his wife when he was put away, "'I can't tell you when but I will come home', I told her. I kept thinking constantly, I didn't do it and I didn't belong there." 25 years old, with two boys aged 3 and 5, he was determined not to give up. "If I did give up at the time, it would mean that I was shutting the door on everything that I have — my kids, my life and suddenly, I had so much to look forward to," he says. He was frustrated, but he knew that he had to find a way forward instead.
"It's all I've been doing since I came back. I can't change my past and they couldn't give me back an hour of what I've lost but I have to make my life and my kid's life better. The pain will always be there," he says. Madrigal's father passed away in the first two years that he was in prison and he couldn't say goodbye but holding on to anger wouldn't help, he knew. "I couldn't come out and say, 'the State did me dirty' and sulk — I had to do right by my kids," he says. He was working within the first week of getting out.
But it wasn't the State that helped him, he says. "The State literally hangs you out to dry. They put you in a cage and open it and say, 'you can walk out' and that's it," he says, pointing out that exonerees receive little to no help from the State to help them get back on their feet after the long years they spend behind bars. It sometimes makes them worse, he says, because they have no support. He did, however, have mandated therapy. It helped him understand the situation he was in and how to move on from his PTSD. "I came to understand that it wasn't just me, it was all of us," he says.
He's currently working in a manufacturing company in Chino, trying to pick up the pieces of the life that was taken from him. "I'm not gonna lie, I have my moments but other than that, I've been good," he says. "I'm working. I mean, I get through it one day at a time." But this job came after a series of failed attempts. He recalls a particular incident where he checked a box that got him fired instead of hired, he says. After completing 90 days of the trial period, his supervisor really wanted to get him on board because of the quality of work but the moment Madrigal revealed in the form that he had been to prison, it was tossed out.
"I would tell this to anyone looking for a job after getting out — don't go out there telling everyone your situation but when it comes down to it, be honest," he says. "Once you establish yourself with your work, then establish yourself as a person. Talk to your supervisor, your HR, your manager and explain your situation."
As for those who are currently fighting for their innocence or in prison, he tells them to hang in there and be as involved in the case as possible. "50 percent of the reason why I was in prison was because my defense attorney didn't speak out. If your attorney doesn't say it, say it to the court — make sure you are heard. If it isn't reported, it won't help you," he says.
Madrigal was exonerated on October 6, 2009, with the help of the California Innocence Project after serving nine years of his wrongful sentence but his days in court, unfortunately, are far from over.
Almost a decade after being released from prison and being exonerated in court, Madrigal's compensation still hasn't been approved. "I applied to them when I was released, I followed up afterward and I still haven't heard back," he says sounding disappointed. "Not one penny from the State of California," he says adding that the system is broken. He is owed approximately $281,700 from the state of California.