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Copyright | Los Angeles Times Magazine

March 03, 2002

This is what the record shows: On June 24, 1984, Joseph Hernandez Luna murdered Clifford Flores. The two Los Angeles men were fighting in the exercise yard of Soledad State Prison when Luna jabbed a pointed stick into Flores' throat, severing his carotid artery. Flores bled to death. On April 25, 1985, Luna--an armed robber with about a year left on his term--was convicted of second-degree murder in Monterey County and sentenced to 17 years to life. The record was then closed and Luna disappeared deeper into prison, perhaps there to die, certainly to be forgotten.

But there was another record, one that remained unknown for almost 18 years.

I never knew Joe Luna existed until his name was blurted out to me one day late last year by John L. Jackson, a 21-year veteran of the California Department of Corrections and now a supervisor of academic instruction for the department at its Sacramento headquarters. We were finishing a telephone interview on another topic and had almost reached goodbye when Jackson said, "You know, there's something that happened almost 20 years ago that's been bothering me. There was a guy at Soledad named Joe Luna who was getting out of ad-seg [administrative segregation], and he came before a classification committee that I was on."

Administrative segregation is a term for the separation of inmates from the general prison population--generally because they need protection or are accused of a prison infraction, sometimes by other inmates. Before being returned to the "mainline" population, they appear before the committee, which determines where they should be housed next. Jackson explained that he often sat on the panel as a representative of the education department. "Luna said to us that he couldn't go back on the mainline. He said, 'If you send me back out there, I'm gonna get killed, or I'm gonna have to kill someone.' Or words like that. The guy in charge, George Smith, asked him, 'Who's trying to kill you?' Luna said he couldn't tell him. So Smith sent him back to the mainline."

Jackson paused. I waited. "A couple of days later, Luna killed a man in the yard, just like he told us might happen."

"So what are you saying, John?"

"I'm saying Luna had a legal right to be protected, and Smith knew that. He also knew that Luna couldn't give him names. That would have made him a snitch, and if or when word got out, that would have been Luna's death warrant for sure."

Jackson paused again. "That man [Luna] acted in self-defense. He shouldn't be in prison. I think he's an innocent man."

The name George Smith was familiar to me. He had ended his career as warden at Corcoran State Prison from 1992 to 1996, a period of so much staff violence against inmates that the state and the FBI investigated. Smith was accused of lax management. He invoked the 5th Amendment before a grand jury and the California Legislature.

I started to question Jackson. Did he know Luna?

"Never saw him before or since."

Why didn't Jackson or the two others on the committee speak up?

"You didn't cross George Smith. He dominated people."

What should have been done?

"When an inmate says he's in danger and asks for protection, you have to give it to him. That's regulations."

Why didn't Jackson tell this story before?

This answer came more slowly. "I was pretty new there, so I just pushed it out of my mind . . . intimidated. I wasn't called to testify at the trial, and then it was over. I guess I wanted to get ahead and not make waves."

Why now? "More and more, I've been thinking about it. It's embarrassing, but I know it needs to be made right. I'm a Christian man . . . ."

We said our goodbyes. I transcribed Jackson's statement and sent it to the corrections department for a reaction. Then I placed a call. Spokeswoman Terry Thornton said, "I don't know what you want. The only thing I can do is confirm who was on the committee. I don't know what your interest is in this. None of his [Luna's] fears about being returned to the mainline are documented, as far as I can see."

The official record shows that on june 20, 1984, joe luna was summoned before the classification committee on which Jackson was one of four members. Luna had about a year remaining on a five-year sentence for armed robbery. The decision of that committee, put in a memo called a "chrono," was signed by program administrator Smith and a counselor, Don DeBelle. The committee sent Luna back to the mainline the next day.

Two days later, according to Luna's trial testimony and interviews I conducted with Luna, he was approached by Flores, whom Luna knew to be a tough guy in the Mexican Mafia prison gang. Flores, serving a life term for murder, said what Luna already knew: He was suspected of being a snitch to the administration because he had been in and out of ad-seg several times for reasons unknown to the inmates--something that arouses suspicion among prisoners who suspect it's a means by which information can be passed from a snitch to guards. Luna says he also had refused to join the Mexican Mafia and wouldn't pay tribute to Flores.

At his trial, Luna said that Flores told him, "I want you to prove to me that you're all right by moving on [killing] another inmate," someone nicknamed "Shorty Blue." Luna said he refused, which made Flores angry. "I told him, 'Man, I'm going home in nine months, man.' "

The next morning, at about 9:30, Luna said he was doing pull-ups in the prison yard when Flores and two other men approached. All were wearing shirts or jackets in the Salinas Valley heat, a telltale sign that they were prepared for combat. He said Flores took a swing at him with a foot-long handmade knife, which he eluded. He then moved away, toward the opposite part of the yard. Flores' two friends followed, as did Flores a few minutes later.

Luna retreated next to the yard entrance gate, which he said was locked, and then to the area of the baseball diamond. Along the way, he picked up a sweatshirt, a shirt and a jacket that he found lying around and put them on as protective gear. He also found a jagged piece of wood from a tennis racket that he could use as a weapon.

Minutes later, Flores approached. Luna stood waiting near the canteen in the midst of other inmates, his wooden weapon hidden in his jacket. He didn't run, he testified at trial. "I wanted to tell him that I didn't want no trouble with him, to stay away from me, that I wasn't an informant." Luna said Flores blustered, swore at him and told him that it was a small world and he knew where Luna's family lived.

Luna said Flores and his two friends pulled knives, and Flores lunged at him. Luna pulled out his own weapon and grabbed Flores' arm. Using Flores as a shield from the other two, Luna then grabbed at Flores' collar. They wrestled to the ground.

"Man, I just went crazy with fear. I remember jabbing at him with my stick. I remember hitting him in the neck, and the blood just spurted out like a fountain." Then it was over. A guard in a tower some 700 feet away fired a blank shotgun round and inmates dropped or scattered.

Luna said that he walked away rapidly as Flores bled to death. When guards grabbed him, Luna had shed his extra clothes and his weapon and was trying to wipe Flores' blood off of his body.

Almost 18 years after the killing, I sit alone at a steel table in the visitors' area of maximum-security Calipatria State Prison, waiting for Luna. I'm leery of being used. Anyone familiar with prisons knows that they house the world's craftiest con men. Those who want out always smile and say please. This one grew up without a father, became a juvenile delinquent at 14, turned to heroin and then to robbery to support his habit. But then I remember that this story did not start with Luna but with a respected professional in the corrections department.

Luna enters and walks to the table with a sheaf of papers in his hand. For several years he has been held in protective custody here because he remains a possible target of the Mexican Mafia. He is in good shape for his 48 years, with brown skin and graying hair. His clothes are neatly pressed. He is almost 6 feet tall and about 200 pounds. A Mexican American, he talks with a soft Spanish accent that ties him to his youth in the barrio; sometimes he pauses to search for unfamiliar English words. His arms and chest are heavily tattooed with ornate scrolls and the names of neighborhoods with which he once identified. The images are showing age, just as he is.

He is less certain of me than I am of him because he knows how powerless his position is. He, too, is wary of being used. His main concern, which he puts on the table immediately, is that I not use his wife's name or reveal where she lives because he fears retribution by the Mexican Mafia. She was a sweetheart when both were teenagers. They married five years ago, after conjugal visits for lifers stopped, so their life together has consisted of collect phone calls and weekend hours in the visitors' room. He has three children from a previous marriage.

"Man, my family keeps me going," he says. "But it hurts so much that I'm in here and I can't do for them what I want--what I will do for them . . . when I get out of here." The last phrase is hesitant and soft because he knows that getting parole in the present tough-on-crime climate is difficult. He knows that when he appears before the parole board on March 5, his chances will be slim. Or, as one parole lawyer says: "Zero, zilch. I don't know anything about his case, but they're not letting murderers out these days."

Luna asks me to thank Jackson for coming forward. "I remember a black dude who looked a little nervous, didn't say nothing. I guess that was him. I call him Action Jackson now. God bless him. He is in here," he says while patting his heart.

Before the visit, I had called Luna and, without telling him Jackson's version, asked him to tell me all he could about the committee meeting. The stories meshed. I ask him to repeat it now, and he does.

"Did you refuse to tell them who was threatening you?"

"I do that, I might as well cut my own throat, man. There ain't no secrets in prison. When I ran into Flores back in the yard just a couple of days later, he said, 'I understand you didn't want to come back out here.' Now, how'd he know that?"

In prison, chronos are the fuel that makes bureaucratic fires burn. Luna's file contains a fistful of them, but the only one of interest today bears the date June 20, 1984.

Once past the jargon, that memo says, "Subject [Luna] acknowledges that he has been in and out of [administrative segregation] several times on various charges which he claims have been dismissed. Subject feels that he is unwanted on the mainline--He denies dealing in smut information [slang for snitching] or being gang affiliated. Subject expresses profound exasperation with continually being implicated by, in his opinion, other inmates as to being involved in activities which he denies involvement in . . . ." The report concludes by recommending a transfer to another prison--but in the meantime, he is ordered back to the mainline.

Of the four members of the committee, only John Jackson says he remembers the hearing. Counselor Patricia Womer says that she has no recollection of it or of Luna. Counselor Don DeBelle, now retired, says, "You've got to remember these things lasted five or 10 minutes, and I did a thousand a year." When told he also testified at Luna's trial, DeBelle says, "I did?"

The fourth member, George Smith, says it is unfair to ask him to comment on something "that happened 18 years ago without having any factual data in front of me. This guy, I don't remember him, and the murder, I don't remember it at all. I can't believe John Jackson remembers something that happened 18 years ago."

A chrono is a technical instrument with inherent hidden meanings, so I seek clarification. Richard Gile, who retired two years ago as chief deputy warden at Centinela State Prison, says after reviewing the June 20 chrono: "If whoever wrote that truly believed what he said, then he did not take appropriate action," which would have been retention in protected housing. "The safety of the inmate has to come first."

Ralph Mineau, retired captain at Corcoran State Prison, says: "You see where the chrono reads that Luna 'claims' the charges that sent him to ad-seg were dismissed? Well, Smith would've had Luna's file in front of him. He'd have known the truth. So the fact that Luna's statement was unchallenged can be taken as confirmation.

"However, the main thing that's irregular is that the committee recommended he be transferred, but at the same time they put him back on the mainline. They're recognizing that he has a serious problem and may be in danger, but they still send him back. That should not have been done."

William Steven Rigg, retired lieutenant at Corcoran and now a statewide consultant on correctional institutions, is more blunt. "This man should have been given protection, absolutely," he says. "You don't jeopardize the safety of an inmate just because he's afraid to talk." Rigg also is troubled by the wording, "feels unwanted," in the chrono. "Strange language. What's that mean? It's like the word is begging for an explanation." Rigg and Mineau, unlike Gile, have a history with Smith. They were whistle-blowers on incidents that occurred while he was warden at Corcoran. When I mention their names, Smith says, "They're both liars."

I tell Smith what Jackson and Luna have said. He disputes them entirely. "I'm not a dummy. If someone said, 'I'm gonna go out and kill somebody or they're gonna kill me, I would never let that man on the [main]line. Period."

He says that he would have been suspicious of Luna's motives. "Lots of people want to get transferred closer to home, wherever the hell they want to get transferred to, and they tell you they got a problem. We had a pretty amenable bunch of [inmates], and this guy says he can't get along . . . ."

When asked about Luna's fears of being labeled a snitch, Smith says, "I don't think so. I don't think so . . . that's ridiculous." He says that the Mexican Mafia was "almost nonexistent" at Soledad at the time, its members having been locked up and transferred out. (Gile does not agree. "The Mexican Mafia has always had members at Soledad," he says. "That's never changed.")

When told that Luna allegedly had not threatened to kill someone but predicted the possibility that it would happen in self-defense, Smith says, "Do you really believe that? My God, man, don't you know there are evil people in the world? There are evil people in the world and they are in prison--we hope. Some of them are not in prison yet, but they will be."

At Luna's 11-day trial in 1985, defense attorney Brian Gill used the June 20 chrono to explain Luna's fear about returning to the mainline, drawing especially on the term "unwanted." When told recently that Jackson said Luna's language before the committee had been much stronger than "unwanted," that he had said he thought he would be killed or have to kill someone in self-defense, Gill is aghast. "If I'd have known that, I'd have gone to the wall with it, any lawyer worth his salt would."

Luna says that he probably didn't tell Gill about his words to the committee because, "I was a confused idiot back then. I didn't know how to talk or what to say." At the trial, Luna even picked up the word "unwanted" and repeated it on the stand.

Gill called eight inmates to the stand who said they saw the fight, or parts of it. One, Jose Montes, who testified that he was right next to Luna, said Flores was the aggressor and had been armed with a knife. Five inmates said they saw Flores throw the knife to two inmates right after he was stabbed and after the shotgun blast. Another inmate, Randy Charrette, said that he saw Flores drinking "pruno" (prison liquor) the day before, and Flores showed him a knife and said that he was going to kill Luna. Of the members of the committee, only counselor DeBelle testified, and he confirmed that Luna felt "unwanted" on the mainline.

Monterey County prosecutor William Curtis used testimony from guards to attack Luna's account, although none of them saw the stabbing. He also sought to undermine Luna's witnesses by disclosing their criminal records, telling jurors, "Let's consider the defense inmate witnesses, a really fine collection of fellows."

Mainly he drummed home that Luna tried to escape the killing scene and had no serious wounds himself. He said that Flores was unarmed because no weapon was found in the yard, even after inmates were searched and a metal detector was used to scour the yard the next day.

The prosecutor also disclosed that Luna didn't seek help from guards who were in or near the yard.

I ask Luna about that in my interview. He says that based on his treatment by the classification committee, he assumed the prison staff would not come to his defense. "I already asked them for help, and they didn't give it to me. Where was I supposed to run to if they didn't listen again?"

Rigg says that if Luna had run to the guards, it "would have labeled him an informant. And since staff had already refused to protect him, he obviously felt he had no alternative but to do what he did."

joe luna dreams of a late-life shot at freedom and admits to occasional bitterness. "I get depressed. I get emotional. Man, it hurts. Years ago, I blamed those people for putting me in this situation, but I never blamed anyone else for the things I did."

His eyes become red and he blinks hard. Luna has taken anger-management classes, faithfully attended Narcotics Anonymous, learned trades and says he has had no discipline write-ups for more than a decade. However, he knows of many other convicts who have taken all of the classes, accumulated the good-behavior points, kept their noses clean and ultimately, all for naught: parole denied.

Luna's wife, who works for a utility company and goes to college at night to complete her degree, says, "He's served more than enough time for the crimes he did commit. Now it's time for justice to be done. He deserves to be with his family."

One incident that should weigh in his favor is a report written by a prison captain dated April 21, 2000, which praises Luna for breaking up a fight between a black and a Latino inmate and restoring calm to what could have ignited a racial incident. The official wrote, "Based on inmate Luna's actions, and his apparent concern for positive programming of himself--[he] should be commended for his actions."

On Tuesday, Joe Luna will stand before the parole board at Calipatria and ask to rejoin society. On that day, both he and the board will be put to the test.


Fred Dickey last wrote for the magazine on hit man John Patrick Sheridan.

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