true crime

Juan Catalan was facing death row. Then a baseball scene from a popular sitcom saved him.

Juan Catalan always loved baseball.

The best memories from his childhood involved cramming into the cheap seats to see the best of the game battle it out. It’s a tradition he carried into his adult years.

On May 12, 2003, then 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 saving his life.

Three months later, Juan was charged with the murder of 16-year-old Martha Puebla. Puebla had recently testified at a preliminary hearing about a gang murder in which Juan’s brother Mario had been charged as an accessory.

The police believed Juan – who had been in the courtroom at the time – had killed Puebla in retaliation. Adding credence 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.

“Like, why? Why is my life going to end here?”

According to the New York Post, Juan then got in touch with local “kick-ass” attorney Todd Melnik, who agreed to be his defense lawyer.

After taking on the case, Melnik went to Dodger Stadium and began poring over the internal camera footage in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Juan. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find any evidence of Juan being at the stadium that day.

Then Juan remembered he had seen a camera crew filming at the stadium on the night in question. The Dodgers fan remembered them because he had been stopped by a production assistant so as not to interrupt filming.

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Melnik discovered the film crew was from HBO and later found out they had been filming a scene for Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. The scene was for the episode “The Carpool Lane” in which David picks up a sex worker so he can use the carpool lane to avoid the traffic getting into Dodgers Stadium.

Once again, Melnik spent hours combing through footage, but this time he got a result. Among the footage was a shot of Juan, in his No. 27 Kevin Brown shirt, and his daughter Melissa, walking back to their seats after a visit to the concession stand.

Despite this small win, Juan was still behind bars. The prosecutor argued the footage was from 9:10pm, and Puebla hadn’t been killed until 10:30pm. In his opinion, that gave Juan plenty of time to leave the stadium, drive to the scene of the crime, and murder the teenager.

But then Juan got another break. Cell phone records showed that Juan had picked up a call from his girlfriend at 10:12pm that night, and the call had pinged a tower right next to Dodger Stadium.

After sitting in jail for five and a half months, Juan was cleared of the charges at a preliminary hearing. In 2008, a gang member named Raul Robledo received a life sentence for the murder of Martha Puebla.

According to ABC News, Juan received $320,000 USD in a settlement against the LAPD and the city of Los Angeles for false imprisonment, misconduct and defamation.

He later met Larry David and shook his hand.

“That show is hilarious,” he told the New York Post. “’The Carpool Lane’ is obviously my favorite episode.”

After the trial, Juan and Melnik became great friends, they often go to Dodgers games together.

“If Juan had been home that night, he might be on death row right now,” Melnik told the New York Post. “That’s how crazy this was. Only by happenstance did he get tickets to go to the game that night. Only by happenstance would [‘Curb’] be filming in his section that night.”

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