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Home / malicious prosecution lawsuit

OC jurors reject malicious prosecution claim against LAPD

Jurors in a federal court in Santa Ana have rejected a malicious prosecution claim made by a man who wrongly spent 13 years behind bars in a gang-related and racially charged killing near Torrance in 2001, according to court records obtained Friday.

Marco Antonio Milla spent about 13 years behind bars for the gang-related and racially charged killing of 19-year-old Robert Hightower and the wounding of another man Sept. 29, 2001. Jurors rejected the claim Thursday.

Hightower and three friends were on the way to visit his sister at her apartment near 204th and Harvard Streets in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Harbor Gateway, bordering Torrance, when they were attacked, authorities said.

Milla’s attorney, Martin Stanley, told jurors in his opening statement of the trial that the neighborhood was experiencing heightened tensions as more Black residents like Hightower’s sister were moving into the Latino neighborhood.

Milla was sentenced to life without parole for the shooting, but was cleared when U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials came forward with evidence from a confidential informant alleging someone else shot Hightower and his friends, Ramar Jenkins and Steven Flowers.

Milla filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city, and also named Detective Richard Ulley, who is now a lieutenant, and the estate of John Vander Horck, who died in June 2020.

The investigators interviewed Traci McCombs, Erica Hightower and Ramar Jenkins, with McCombs and Hightower providing “tentative” identifications of Milla as the shooter from photo lineups, Stanley told jurors. Jenkins was the only one to identify Milla, he added.

The detectives attempted to tape the interview with Jenkins, but it was mostly muffled, so they interviewed him again.

“They claimed it didn’t work so they re-interviewed him,” Stanley said of the recorder. “You’re going to hear them asking him leading questions.”

“Mr. Jenkins has been feeling bad about this for years,” Stanley said. “He felt like he was under pressure (to finger a suspect).”

When Jenkins was told police suspected it was a racially motivated shooting, “This made him very angry,” Stanley said. “He was willing to do anything to get that gang member off the streets.”

Stanley also faulted the investigators for failing to tell prosecutors that Hightower said she didn’t recognize any of the suspects in lineups, Stanley said.

Milla was born in Los Angeles and his father left the family when his son was young, Stanley said. Milla “involuntarily” joined a gang when he was 13, according to the attorney.

“He didn’t want to do it, but he was beaten into it,” Stanley said.

Milla has a criminal history, but mostly of minor crimes that were not violent, Stanley said.

Stanley noted that police never recovered a gun, but did find a holster and bullets in Milla’s home.

“There was no direct evidence whatsoever connecting Mr. Milla to this shooting,” Stanley said.

Milla was watching a boxing match with friends the night of the shooting and had alibi witnesses, Stanley said. During the fight they went to a liquor store, he said.

The investigators “never went to the liquor store for video — or to talk to the clerk or interview any alibi witnesses,” Stanley said.

“All the detectives had to do was speak with the clerk or, better yet, get the video,” Stanley said. “They would have found he was buying a beer at the time of the murder. … That’s concealment of evidence.”

Defense attorney Kevin Gilbert said Milla, who was living in Carson at the time, was stopped by officers in the neighborhood three days after the killing. He was stopped again the next day because he was a suspect in another shooting, Gilbert said.

Milla was also a suspect in a May 2001 threat of a Black man in the area, Gilbert said. The victim had pulled into a driveway to turn around when the suspect walked up and put a gun to the driver’s head, prompting the victim to speed away, Gilbert said.

Milla was arrested for that incident, but the victim did not wish to testify so no charges were filed, Gilbert said.

When the detectives questioned Jenkins, he did not hesitate to identify Milla, Gilbert said. The investigators did not have to tape-record interviews, but did so anyway, he said.

When they realized the tape recording did not work they questioned him again to confirm his statement, Gilbert said.

“You’ll hear Mr. Jenkins confirm what the officers say,” Gilbert said.

Erica Hightower told the detectives that Milla bore some “similarities to the shooter,” Gilbert said.

A judge signed off on a probable cause search warrant of Milla’s home, and the prosecutor who filed charges asked if Milla had any alibis, and the investigators said he did claim to have alibis, Gilbert said.

Jurors heard deposition testimony from Vander Horck as well as testimony from the criminal trial, Gilbert said.

The attorney said the investigators attempted to interview alibi witnesses, but they avoided police or refused to talk to them.

“Ultimately the question will be what did the detectives know at the time,” Gilbert said. “Not in hindsight, not after the fact.”

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