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This is a writeup about the case of Johnny Baca, who is convicted of a double murder in 1995. The details of the murder are fairly mundane, but the legal wrangling surrounding it are what make it interesting. This case will probably interest courtroom junkies like me more than people who are interested in the crimes themselves. The crime
On Aug. 6, 1995, 57-year-old Jack Adair called 911 to report that he and his partner, John Mix had been shot. When asked who shot him, he replied “Baca.” Deputies arrived at their Rancho Mirage home to find Mix, 39, dead of a gunshot wound to his face and Adair holding a towel to his face, bleeding profusely from two gunshot wounds. Although critically wounded and speaking in a garbled voice, he repeated the name “Baca” several times and pointed to papers that referred to their live-in housekeeper and gardner 24-year-old Johnny Baca. Adair soon lapsed into a coma and passed away several days later.
Police soon found Baca at a park in Carson. Adair’s car, which had been taken by Baca the day of the shooting, was located nearby and he was arrested. The case should have been open and shut. History
I can’t find a whole lot about John Mix, but Jack Adair was kind of a big deal. He got his start as a radiologic technologist before becoming a hospital administrator. He was also well known for his activism in the gay community. This was the early 90’s and gay marriage wasn’t legal yet, but the men had a “commitment ceremony,” so in my mind, they should be referred to as married, but typically you see them referred to as “lovers” in court documents. This photo was taken of the couple at that ceremony Here is an interview that Adair did in 1993.
Adair had a son named Tom who he adopted as a troubled teenager. Tom was actually the one who got Baca the job working at Adair’s house and evidently they were friends. For the first couple of months of his employment, Baca was alone in the house most of the time because Adair and Mix were in the Los Angeles area. During this time, Tom visited regularly, and Baca and Tom frequently talked on the telephone.
A lot of the information about what happened in the days leading up to the shooting came from a close friend of Adair’s named Valerie Millot. About two weeks before the murders, Millot received a telephone call from Adair, saying that he wanted Baca to leave. At Adair’s request, Millot came over to Adair’s house and asked him to leave, which he did.
Adair and Millot packed his belongings and put them in the driveway. A short time later, Tom called and confronted Millot. He yelled that this was none of her business, she should not interfere, and Baca was a good guy. Evidently, between Baca apologizing and Tom’s appeal, they successful in getting Adair to give Baca a second chance because he moved back in. The day of the murders
Millot picked up John Mix at the airport and drove him home. During the drive, Mix mentioned that he was afraid of Baca. Millot stayed at Adair’s house for a few hours, and said when she finally left, Adair and Mix were in good spirits and seemed to be getting along well. A few hours later, the 911 call came in.
Baca did testify at trial, and he conceded that he was at the home that day and admitted that he took the car without permission, but he claims he left before the murder took place. He claims Mix was going to drive him to his (Baca’s) grandmother’s house, but Mix was fighting with Adair and taking too long, so he stole the car and drove himself. Not a very believable excuse. Murder for hire?
While I believe the evidence of Baca being the shooter is strong, the prosecution argued a new storyline at trial with a lot less evidence behind it: the shooting was a murder for hire at the behest of Adair’s son Tom. Millot testified that Adair intended to disinherit Tom, leaving him with just enough for an education. Adair’s brother also testified that Adair was constantly bailing Tom out of financial trouble and that a couple months before the murders, Adair told his brother that he wanted to remove Tom from his will and insurance policies because their relationship had soured and Adair felt he was being used by Tom. So potentially, there could be motive there. But the bulk of this theory was provided by a jailhouse snitch named Daniel Melendez who testified that Baca confessed to him that Tom hired him to commit the murders. Using this testimony would later come back to bite them in the ass in a big way.
Tom himself was never prosecuted for his alleged role in the plot. Baca was convicted of first degree murder in 1997. Appeal
At Baca’s first trial in 1997, Melendez testified about the supposed confession and insisted that he never asked for any benefit and never received any benefit for his testimony. Well, we all know that’s bullshit. When prosecutors use a jailhouse snitch, they promise them behind the scenes that a sentence reduction will come after they testify, but order them to tell the jury that they’re testifying out of the goodness of their own hearts and have never had any discussions about sentence reductions. They always do the sentence reduction afterwards for a couple reasons. First, they want to make sure the testimony happens and is to their specifications. Second, they don’t want the defense to claim that the snitch has ulterior motives (ie. trying to get their sentence reduced). Even though that’s always a part of it, prosecutors like to claim it’s not. At the first trial, they could testify quite honestly that he had never been given a sentence reduction. I mean, we all know it’s a lie, but the defense can’t prove otherwise. Melendez himself was serving time for a murder and had “dropped the dime” on other individuals to get a reduced sentence (they verbally agreed upon 14 years) for that crime.
Baca was convicted of first degree murder and quickly filed an appeal.
While that appeal was still pending, Melendez had his formal sentencing for the other murder and his attorney brought up the fact that Melendez had been promised a sentence reduction for his testimony against Baca. The prosecutor objected, claiming they’d never promised anything for his testimony. The sentencing judge was incredulous, and he actually mocked them in court. Finally the state coughed up the actual reason for objecting: Baca was appealing and he wanted to “protect the record,” which basically means, he didn’t want Baca to be able to claim that the state lied about Melendez not getting a deal out of this. The judge wasn’t having it and reduced Melendez’s sentence to 11 years.
Baca’s conviction was overturned shortly after in 1999. I can’t find the appellate opinion, but at the hearing last year, they mentioned that Baca’s prior child sex conviction was used inappropriately at the trial and that may have prejudiced the jurors. (Doesn’t Baca sound like a peach?) The case goes off the rails
Baca was retried and they presented largely the same evidence. Melendez testified that Baca confessed to him about a murder for hire deal, then he testified that he never asked for any benefit and never received any benefit for his testimony against Baca. The state took it one step further. They called to the stand the prosecutor who worked on Melendez’s murder case--a deputy district attorney named Robert Spira. Spira, who was at Melendez’s sentencing—who testified to the jury that Melendez’s sentence was not reduced for any reason related to the Baca case.
Let that sink in a minute. It’s one thing for an informant to lie on the stand, it’s quite another for a prosecutor to get on the stand and lie to the jury.
And then just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, they go and fuck it up even more. Baca was convicted a second time and appealed his second conviction. Only this time, his appellate attorney has the transcript from the sentencing hearing, which they try to give to the appellate court as part of the appeal. The DA’s office fought “tooth and nail” to try to keep it away from the appellate court. They bitterly argued that the appellate court should NOT look at the sentencing transcript. The appellate court did not look kindly on the fact that they not only lied, they tried to hide the evidence of those lies and came down quite hard on them in their opinion.
Unfortunately for Baca, the case against him being the shooter was a strong case and they decided that the credibility of a jailhouse snitch was probably not that great to begin with, so the verdict would probably be the same. The 9th circuit
Having been turned down by a lower court, the case ended on the desk of the US court of appeals for the 9th circuit (one level below the supreme court). The 9th circuit is notoriously liberal and even has their own youtube channel
where you can watch their hearings.
As strong as the case is against him, what the defense is arguing is actually pretty grounded. It’s tough to argue that Baca is factually innocent (although he still maintains his innocence), but what his attorney argued was there was a serious question about the degree
of the crime. There was plenty of evidence that Baca was the shooter, but the only evidence that this murder was anything past second degree was the testimony by Melendez, who was clearly lying. Had the jurors known that not only was Melendez lying, but the prosecutor himself was lying as well, they might have convicted on a lesser charge. And they have a point.
Well, the hearing for this particular case has to be seen to be believed. It’s perhaps not a surprise, as vocal as judge Alex Kozinski has been when it comes to prosecutorial misconduct in the past, but seriously, watch this video.
Everything is pretty standard until the 16 minute mark when deputy attorney Kevin Vienna stands up to defend the state. Eviscerated doesn’t begin to describe it.
Vienna tried to claim that perhaps Spira was simply confused when he testified, which they weren't having. When they confronted him on the fact that the district attorney’s office fought to keep the proof of those lies out of the court of appeals, he tried to pretend like he couldn’t understand the question. They also took serious issue with the fact that only Baca was tried for murder for hire, but not Tom.
In the end, the court told Vienna that he should talk to the attorney general, explain the gravity of the situation, and make it clear that they take the case very seriously and “it won’t be pretty” if they have to decide this case. He gave Vienna a week to decide what to do. The state decided to set aside the conviction themselves to avoid the consequences of being named in that opinion and Baca is headed to trial #3.
So we have an open and shut case, but the state went and mucked it all up with their selfishness. They couldn’t help but cheat, and cheat some more, then go and lie about the cheating.
Was this a murder for hire case? There’s no real evidence either way. Yes, Baca had a relationship with Adair’s son and that son seemed to have a motive, but there are a lot of details that point to Baca simply being a mentally unstable, dangerous individual who killed the two men after a dispute.
Will they try it as a murder for hire case? Melendez should be out of prison for the murder he committed, so what incentive does he have to testify? The defense has solid proof that he has lied in the past to a jury, which will certainly undermine his credibility. It should be interesting to see how they handle the third trial. Sources Ninth circuit hearing Slate article about the case
Appellate document: www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/revnppub/E032929.DOC
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