“You do solemnly state that the testimony you may give in the cause now pending before this court shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.” This is the oath taken by all witnesses who give testimony before a California court. It is the oath that Louie Cordero took when he was called to the stand.
Cordero is testifying in the trial of his step-brother, Cristian Iraheta, who is charged with attempted murder. Cordero looks small on the stand, slack jawed with bushy eyebrows, his five-foot-two-inch-frame swimming in a plaid collared shirt. He’s 20 years old, but right now he seems like a middle school student at the principal’s office. He looks scared — more than the usual courtroom nerves. Cordero has a bigger conflict to contend with. He was the one who originally gave police officers his brother’s name. He’s a key witness for the prosecution. But he has changed his testimony on the stand, insisting that his brother is innocent.
Deputy District Attorney Robert Song is furious. Song is an imposing figure and speaks with a precise militaristic rhythm. He’s the kind of man who would elicit the response of “yes, sir” from the cashier of a McDonald’s drive-through. But he’s not getting “yes, sir” right now. Song marches up and down the jury box, raising his voice and commanding Cordero to give him the answer that he wants.
SONG: YOU COULD HAVE GIVEN THEM ANY NAME. YOU COULD HAVE MADE UP A NAME, COULDN’T YOU? YOU COULD HAVE PICKED ANY NAME IN A TELEPHONE BOOK AND GIVEN IT TO THE POLICE AND SAID “THERE, THAT’S YOUR SHOOTER.” BUT YOU DIDN’T BECAUSE YOU TOLD THEM THE TRUTH.
Cordero looks at the ground and shakes his head.
CORDERO: I WANTED TO PROTECT MY FAMILY.
The dissonance of the statement and the circumstances hangs in the courtroom. It doesn’t make sense. Iraheta is Cordero’s brother. How does framing a family member for a crime he didn’t commit protect the family?
The crime at the center of this case occurred on January 3, 2017. Hernan Cocom Jr. was doing laundry with his father and brother when he heard their family van screech away. The men ran outside in pursuit of the stolen van and were intercepted by members of a gang called ATC, or “Alley Tiny Criminals.” One of the gang members pulled a pistol from his hoodie and shot Cocom in the abdomen before fleeing the scene. Cocom was rushed to the hospital and survived the life-threatening bullet wound. That evening, several alleged ATC members were interrogated by police, including Iraheta and Cordero, but all individuals denied their involvement and ultimately no arrests were made.
Three months later, Iraheta was arrested, ostensibly for riding a bike without a headlight. He was interrogated once again about the shooting and again denied his involvement. Then officers brought in Cordero and, after extensive interrogation, he told officers that his brother had committed the crime. By morning, Iraheta had been charged with the attempted murder of Cocom.
The tape of the interrogation in which Cordero confesses to officers that it was his brother who pulled the trigger is the cornerstone of the prosecutor’s entire argument. There are other elements of the people’s case against Iraheta — namely, the ATC gang insignia on his notebooks and backpack and the fact that the shooter was holding a white dog. (Iraheta also has a white dog.) But Cordero is the reason for the arrest.
On the first day of Cordero’s testimony, Song presses him for details regarding the night of the shooting. Cordero states that his recollection is impaired because he had been drinking that night. To the majority of Song’s questions Cordero responds, “I don’t remember.” He repeats the phrase 48 times.
It’s on the second day of Cordero’s testimony that he graduates from being a general annoyance to Song to a genuine threat to the prosecution’s case. Previously, Cordero’s memory was foggy, but now he recalls some critical details that seem to help the defense — specifically he claims there were five gang members around the stolen van, not just Iraheta.
Song fumes. He posits that Cordero was influenced by an interaction with the Bar Panel Attorney Joseph Shemaria over the lunch break.
SONG: DO YOU RECALL THAT YESTERDAY YOU SAID THAT YOU REMEMBERED NOTHING? AND NOW CONVENIENTLY AFTER TALKING TO MR. SHEMARIA YOU REMEMBER THE ENTIRE EVENING?
Cordero sinks in his chair. The judge tells Song to move on, but Song is fired up and on the attack.
SONG: DID YOU TELL THE POLICE ABOUT THE GROUP OF FIVE PEOPLE DURING THE FIRST INTERVIEW?… WHERE IS THIS GROUP OF FIVE PEOPLE MENTIONED IN THE INTERVIEW? POINT IT OUT TO ME! I’LL GIVE YOU A TRANSCRIPT. THE GROUP OF FIVE PEOPLE! POINT IT OUT TO ME.
Song grabs a copy of the transcript from the counsel’s bench. He slaps it onto the witness stand and jabs his index finger at the document. Cordero slowly flips through the pages. He furrows his brow. His head tilts and he bites his lip. Song stares daggers at Cordero as he fumbles around the transcript. Judge Mark Arnold raises an eyebrow and addresses Song. “It’s not in there. Everyone in the court knows it’s not in there. You’ve made your point.” Song storms back to his seat. He throws his legal pad down on the table with a resounding slam.
Shemaria slowly rises from his chair for cross examination. He’s considerably older than Song, with white hair dyed blond and combed over his balding head. He wears a maroon tie with a wasp on it and fiddles with a gold chain bracelet around his left wrist. Shemaria keeps his questions about the police interrogation simple. His tone is calm.
SHEMARIA: MR. CORDERO, DID YOU ENJOY THE INTERROGATION?
Cordero shakes his head.
SHEMARIA: DID YOU WANT TO GO HOME?
SHEMARIA: DID YOU FEEL PRESSURE TO GIVE THE OFFICERS A NAME?
In closing arguments, Shemaria reads from the transcript of Cordero’s interrogation, one that he calls “aggressive” and “old-fashioned Sgt. Friday-style.” The interrogation includes threatening statements. “Whoever cuts the deal first is the one who goes home. Who doesn’t spend his life in prison…this is your shot right here. Your homies don’t give a shit about you.”
Shemaria argues to the jury that Cordero gave his stepbrother’s name because he was under an immense amount of pressure from the police, who were desperate to make an arrest after a clumsy investigation. Cordero lied to the police because he was fearful that if he gave the name of the real shooter, then members of ATC would hurt his mother and father. He saw Iraheta’s name as the one “safe haven.” It was the one name that wouldn’t result in retribution. Cordero was protecting his family but in order to do that he had to sacrifice his brother.
Song’s closing argument touches on Iraheta’s gang affiliations and a positive identification from an eyewitness, but it primarily revolves around a single assertion: that one brother wouldn’t falsely implicate another brother in a crime. Song plays recordings of several phone calls that Iraheta made to Cordero from jail. In two of the recordings, the boys are laughing and joking around with each other. They sound young — like any teen boys who have an inside joke. In the final recording, Cordero is somber. He tells Iraheta “it’s not the same, man. I miss our late night talks.” Song argues that if Iraheta really was innocent then he wouldn’t be friendly with Cordero; he would be livid that his brother wrongfully turned him in. He contends that Cordero was telling the truth to the police during his second interrogation, but that he lied in court to protect his brother.
At the end of the trial there is consensus between the defense and the prosecution. Louie Cordero did not tell the truth, at least not the whole truth. The only question is: When did he lie?
On June 19, 2019, a jury found Iraheta guilty of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to life in prison.