The most enjoyable memories from Juan Catalan childhood involved moving into the cheap seats to watch the best of the game contest. It’s a tradition he took into his adult years.
On May 12, 2003, a 24-year-old Juan watched his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers lose to the Atlanta Braves 11-4 with his six-year-old daughter, Melissa.
It was a game that would end up protecting his life. Three months later, Juan was accused of the murder of 16-year-old Martha Puebla. Puebla had recently claimed at a preliminary hearing about a gang murder in which Juan’s brother Mario had been charged as an accomplice.
How It Started
On May 12, 2003, 16-year-old Martha Puebla was shot to death outside her house in Sun Valley, CA. Only days before her murder, she had testified against young Mario Catalan involving a gang slaying in which Mario was charged as an accessory.
Twenty miles away, Mario’s brother Juan was at Dodger Stadium with his six-year-old daughter, watching his beloved Dodgers play the Atlanta Braves.
Since an eyewitness recognized Juan as the shooter and Juan had a criminal record from his teens. Juan Catalan was committed in Grand Theft Auto, forced by his older brother, for which he was caught and marked with a criminal record that would later worsen his situation, but that he was able to get rid of thanks to a tape that placed him in Dodger Stadium, in a jersey of then-pitcher Kevin Brown.
Police caught him and charged him with murder. The police believed Juan – who had been in the courtroom at the time – had killed Puebla in revenge. Adding belief to their case, an eyewitness said they had seen Juan pull the trigger in the execution-style murder.
Juan, of course, had an alibi. He was at the stadium with Melissa watching the Dodgers play the Braves at the time. But the police didn’t believe him.
The prosecutor – who had never lost a case – was pushing for the death penalty, and it looked like Juan might die for a crime he didn’t commit.
“Since the day I was arrested, I just felt like I was being framed,” Juan told 60 Minutes Liam Bartlett in September this year.
He spent nearly six months in jail protesting his innocence while staring down the death penalty.
It wasn’t until Juan’s determined lawyer was examining hours of tapes and spotted Juan in the crowd during the Dodgers game based on outtakes from Larry David’s HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm that the DA was forced to drop the murder charges and award him a settlement of $320,000.
Six Months of Torture for Juan Catalan
Juan Catalan became a fan of the Dodgers. When he was very young, his uncle took him to Dodger Stadium to watch the legendary Mexican pitcher Fernando Valenzuela pitch a game.
And when he was eighteen, he caught a home-run ball as it sailed into the stands.
But being arrested for murder months after the slaying—and being threatened with either dying in jail or via capital punishment—was a living nightmare for a man who insisted he was at Dodger Stadium watching his favorite sports team when the murder happened.
After his release, he described to a reporter the mental torture of being innocently jailed for murder:
“I felt like I didn’t sleep for six months because there was just so many, so much going on….l mean, I’d never seen so many people just, you know, beaten, you know? When you hear a grown man, you know, cry for help, and you’re like, helpless, it’s a feeling like, man, just of complete…no hope.”
He further said: There’s like, in there, it’s just like, you know, that’s supposed to rehabilitate a person? No. Not in my mind. That just destroys a person in there….My thought was, ‘Am I gonna die in here?’…We are brought up to think that, you know, the policemen are there to protect us, so just knowing that they’re doing something that they shouldn’t, that changes everything.”
Todd Melnik defended Juan Catalan in the Court
Juan had learned from other inmates about a “badass” defense lawyer named Todd Melnik, and Juan frantically called him, begging him to take on his case.
Melnik agreed, and it would be the start of a lifelong emotional friendship between the two. Despite the eyewitness and the alleged motive of taking revenge against someone who had testified against his brother, Melnik believed Juan when he insisted he was innocent.
After a couple of months with Juan in jail, his girlfriend reminded him he had been at the Dodger game that night with his daughter. She was even willing to produce the ticket stubs, and Juan was ready to take a lie-detector test, but prosecutors refused. According to Melnik:
I told him. “‘I’m gonna get you outta here.’… I gotta find the Holy Grail of Juan’s defense. I need to place my client at Dodger Stadium on that night. Juan remembered they might have been filming something there that day….We were in for an enormous fight. They prosecutor they had assigned to the case had never lost. She liked to pick off people with the death penalty. I looked at tape after tape.”
Eventually, Catalan, who had passed through a filming session at the fateful game with his young daughter Melissa, discovered that it had been Larry David and HBO filming there.
He didn’t recognize the name of the show—and later confessed that at the time, he’d never heard of Curb Your Enthusiasm—but he did remember hearing that Super Dave Osborne, whose real name is Bob Einstein and played the character Marty Funkhouser on Curb, was somehow involved in the filming.
By incredible luck, the plot of that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode revolved around David misusing the carpool lane in order to get to the game more quickly.
Melnik, who had pored over countless hours of stadium surveillance footage but couldn’t find anything clear enough to identify Juan, contacted HBO and asked if he could review their outtakes for the show. They agreed.
According to Curb creator and star Larry David:
“The episode was that I picked up a hooker in the carpool lane and took her to Dodger Stadium….We shot in two sections in Dodger Stadium….[Letting them review the tapes] sounded very cool because my life is so lacking in anything interesting….It did seem like kind of a lame story, but I told the lawyer, ‘Go ahead, go crazy. Look at anything you want.’ And we hooked him up with everything from the stadium, all the footage we shot that night…. I’m there for maybe five minutes, and the lawyer screams out, ‘There he is!’…We couldn’t believe it. We rewound the tape, and just as I’m walking up the aisle in one shot, this guy is sitting right there. And then there was another shot where he was standing up.”
However, the prosecutor wouldn’t budge since the tapes were time-stamped and located Juan at the stadium around 9 PM, and the murder didn’t occur until around 10:30. She argued that Juan had plenty of time to leave the stadium and drive the 20 miles to commit the slaying.
But finally, Melnik was able to locate a phone call between Juan and his girlfriend that pinged right near Dodger Stadium when it would have been physically impossible for Juan to reach the crime scene in time to commit the murder.
Upon hearing all the evidence, the judge dismissed all the charges, and Juan was a free man.
Compensation did Juan Catalan Receive.
Juan filed a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles for police misconduct Catalan would eventually receive $320,000 for the wrongful accusation. Both Juan Rodríguez and Martín Pinner admitted that they tried to coerce a false confession out of Catalan.
Although it later was revealed that the two police who investigated Juan and named him as the shooter had framed him—and that amazingly, one of them is still employed as a cop—Juan says he forgives them:
You know, hate is, no one should walk around with hate in them. That’s poison in our bodies that, you know, it doesn’t hurt the person you hate, it hurts yourself, and it eats away at your soul.
Documentary on Netflix
A loyal follower of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he knew that his team’s closer in that long-ago 2003 season, Canadian Eric Gagne, hardly missed the diamond.
Still, on the night of May 12, the pitcher was a disaster, and the life of a man of Hispanic origin would change radically.
A few years after the settlement, Netflix produced a short documentary about Juan’s case titled Long ShotThe documentary ‘Long Shot,’ available on Netflix, tells the story of Juan Ignacio Catalan, a man with a troublesome life during his youth, who, because he was with the wrong people, at a bad time, was about to be sentenced to death, had it not been for that game that the Los Angeles Dodgers lost 11-4 to the Atlanta Braves and a cheap comedy shoot.
Netflix documentary notes that if Juan had merely gone home that night and hadn’t watched the game and been filmed by HBO, he might be on Death Row right now.