Fresno DA honors unsung heroes of criminal justice system

Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, in teal jacket, joins honorees at the Rotary Club of Fresno luncheon honoring unsung heroes of the criminal justice system – the witnesses and prosecutors and staff who hold criminals accountable.
Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, in teal jacket, joins honorees at the Rotary Club of Fresno luncheon honoring unsung heroes of the criminal justice system – the witnesses and prosecutors and staff who hold criminals accountable.

Cecilia Hernandez. Guillermo Cervantes. Olga Andrade. Isidro Madera.

In the eyes of Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, these people represent the unsung heroes of the criminal justice system who come to court and testify against killers, sexual predators, women-beaters and gang members.

In a noontime speech Monday to the Rotary Club of Fresno, Smittcamp said without witnesses, no one would be held accountable.

She also praised her prosecutors for putting in countless hours to ensure victims get justice, despite having high caseloads and low pay compared with their statewide peers.

Nearly 200 people attended the luncheon at the downtown Cornerstone Banquet & Conference Center on Fulton Street.

Smittcamp’s speech focused on civic responsibility and the meaning of being a good citizen. She said the law works only when citizens are willing to come forward, talk to police and testify in court when they witness a crime.

Fresno’s top prosecutor then turned the program over to her deputies, who she said are on the front lines of the battle against crime.

Hernandez shot three times

Prosecutor Andrew Janz spoke about Hernandez, who stood up to gang violence after being shot three times in June 2014 while sitting in a car in southwest Fresno. Hernandez talked with police, identified the shooter and went to court knowing there could be gang retaliation against her and her family, Janz told the gathering.

With her testimony, Tabarri Maurice Townsend, 23, was convicted in August 2015 of six felony charges, including the attempted murder of Hernandez. He was sentenced to 80 years to life in prison. Hernandez died five days after her testimony in a car crash near Millerton Lake. She was just 19.

In telling Hernandez’s story, Janz said he hoped it “might inspire others to come forward in the name of justice.”

In attendance was Hernandez’s sister, Julia Pena, who brought her daughter Irene Tellez, 10, and Hernandez’s daughter, Josephina Lemus, 3.

In accepting the award, Pena thanked the crowd and said her sister would be proud.

Cervantes protected woman

Prosecutor Elana Aron Smith said Cervantes, 42, was coming home from work late one night in August 2014 when he saw a male driver ram a car driven by a woman near Peach and Butler avenues in southeast Fresno. At great risk to his life, Cervantes put his truck between the two cars to protect the woman, Smith said. Cervantes also called 911 and followed the male driver until police caught him.

Neither the victim nor her passenger were willing to testify, Smith said – but Cervantes testified. “I believe he saved her life,” Smith said.

Teen speaks out against sexual assault

In honoring Olga Andrade, 15, prosecutor Deborah Girard cried, saying the teen’s bravery and courage has left a big impact on her own life.

Girard said Olga was a victim of sexual assault by her uncle. (Olga’s family was on hand Monday, and the teen said she hoped that having her name known would inspire other victims to stand up to sexual assault.) Olga said the abuse began when she was about 5 years old. To keep Olga quiet, the uncle told her that he was an adult and no one would believe her, Girard told the gathering.

Olga’s grades suffered and she began acting out. Then one day, she got the courage to tell authorities what her uncle had done. The uncle was convicted in September and is serving a sentence of 50 years to life in prison, Girard said. Olga is now doing well in high school.

“You probably saved yourself, your little sister and countless other children,” Smittcamp told Olga in handing her a “Courageous Citizen Award.”

Testifying against gang members

Madera was instrumental in putting two Fresno gang members in jail for the rest of their lives.

In October 2011, a group of gang members confronted Madera, then 70, outside a market on Elm Avenue in southwest Fresno and demanded his 12-pack of soda and money.

Prosecutor Jeff Dupras said Madera wouldn’t give it up, so one of the gang members sucker-punched Madera and another one shot him several times. Once the gang members ran off, Madera was able to get help and talked to police. After recovering from his wounds, Madera testified in court, Dupras said.

Two of Madera’s attackers – Kylin Dion Smith and Walter Gerard King – are serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing 42-year-old Felipe Atilano, who was shot in the head during the early hours of Oct. 2, 2011, while he slept in his van. The two gang members were on a crime spree when they confronted Madera.

“He’s a hero. He’s a champ,” Dupras said of Madera. “And he still walks to that store.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts