On the night of May 12, 2003, 16-year-old Martha Puebla was shot to death outside her home 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 identified Juan as the shooter and Juan had a criminal record from his teens, police arrested him and charged him with murder. He spent nearly six months in jail protesting his innocence while staring down the death penalty. It wasn’t until Juan’s persistent lawyer was reviewing 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 In Hell: Juan Catalan Maintains His Innocence
Juan Catalan grew up loving the Dodgers. When he was very young, his uncle took him to Dodger Stadium to see 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. 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.
Juan had heard 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 an emotional lifelong friendship between the two. Despite the eyewitness, and despite the alleged motive of taking out revenge against someone who had testified aginst his brother, Melnik believed Juan when he insisted he was innocent.
After a couple 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 willing 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 may 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.
Finally, after months, Juan recalled that a TV show had been filming at the stadium the night of the game. He didn’t remember 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.
Melnik, who had pored over countless hours of stadium surveillance footage but couldn’t find anything that was 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 car pool 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, since the tapes were time-stamped and located Juan at the stadium around 9PM and the murder didn’t occur until around 10:30, the prosecutor wouldn’t budge. She argued that there was plenty of time for Juan 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 at a time where 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 in the case dismissed all the charges and Juan was a free man.
The City of Los Angeles Settles With Juan
Juan filed a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles for police misconduct and was awarded $320,000 for false imprisonment.
And 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.
A few years after the settlement, Neflix produced a short documentary about Juan’s case titled Long Shot It notes that if Juan had merely gone home that night and hadn’t attended the game and been filmed by HBO, he might be on Death Row right now.