California

How evidence once thought destroyed helped free a man after 39 years behind bars for murder he didn’t commit


Decades into a life prison sentence without the possibility of parole, Craig Coley continued to insist he was innocent.

The former restaurant night manager had fought unsuccessfully for years to overturn a conviction for a grisly double murder that had shocked Simi Valley in 1978.

But when police recently reopened the case, they faced a daunting obstacle. After Coley lost his final appeal years ago, a judge had issued an order permitting the destruction of the crime scene evidence.

A cold-case detective began what some expected to be a fruitless search. He tried to contact the two laboratories that had performed rudimentary tests on the crime scene evidence in the 1970s and found that both had gone out of business. A Northern California lab had acquired their contents.

That’s when the detective discovered that the evidence boxes had not been destroyed but were sitting forgotten, intact and in storage.

New tests found that a key piece of evidence used to convict Coley did not carry any of his DNA, investigators said.

“We had thought it was destroyed,” Michael Schwartz, Ventura County special assistant district attorney, said in an interview Thursday. “Whether we’d reached the same conclusion without that, I don’t know.”

Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Coley on Wednesday, writing that the DNA evidence and a painstaking re-investigation of the case proved his innocence.

Coley was 31 when he was arrested, and 70 when he was released Wednesday. A former Simi Valley police officer who was convinced of Coley’s innocence plans to help him “get acclimated to freedom” in San Diego, the officer wrote on a GoFundMe page.

It was a relative who came across the bodies of Rhonda Wicht and her son on Nov. 11, 1978. Suspicions had been raised when Wicht, 24, had not arrived for a family get-together.

Police said she had been beaten, raped and strangled with a macrame rope. Her 4-year-old son, Donald, had been smothered in his bed, presumably because he might have identified his mother’s killer.

Wicht had dated Coley for two years, but they were “in the process of breaking up,” officials said this week. Coley was held for questioning the same day.

He was ultimately charged with the two murders.

Defense attorneys criticized Simi Valley police for failing to investigate three other possible suspects, according to news accounts at the time. And the Simi Valley Mirror, a weekly tabloid, published reports asserting that investigators had focused on an innocent man.

At Coley’s first trial, jurors spent four weeks deliberating before announcing they were hopelessly deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of guilt.

A second jury convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder in 1980, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

But last fall, Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone was going through old news clippings about his department and came across some from the Wicht murders. He reached out to a retired detective who had expressed concerns in the past about whether Coley was guilty. With his interest piqued, Livingstone decided to reopen the case.

Schwartz, the Ventura County prosecutor, said the recent investigation determined that the original detectives decided too quickly that Coley was their man and did not fully investigate other possible suspects — a phenomenon known in wrongful conviction cases as “tunnel vision.”

Three current and former police officers told Brown’s office that the detective at the time had “mishandled the investigation or framed Mr. Coley,” the pardon said. The district attorney’s office has not decided if the detective committed misconduct, Schwartz said, but the investigation is continuing.

“ ‘Framed’ is a strong word,” Schwartz said. “That implies that someone knowingly blamed the wrong person. I doubt that occurred.”

Still, the re-investigation of the case turned up several inconsistencies.

An upstairs neighbor had reported seeing Coley’s truck parked outside Wicht’s apartment around the time of the murder, and saw it drive away shortly afterward. The witness noted the driver’s medium-length hair and the pinstripes along the side of the truck, which matched the description of Coley’s.

That testimony was key to Coley’s conviction, The Times reported at the time.

Exactly 39 years later, on the anniversary of Wicht’s murder, Simi Valley police returned to the apartment complex in the early morning hours and stared out the same window.

“They could see very little,” Schwartz said. “They could see vehicles, but the idea that someone could identify markings on the side of a vehicle is very unlikely. They couldn’t see inside it at all.”

Another neighbor initially told police the murder had been committed at 4:30 a.m. At that same time, Coley was carpooling home with a coworker from his restaurant job, which Schwartz described as “an airtight alibi.”

The second neighbor later testified that the murder had taken place at 5:30 a.m. and denied saying he thought it had happened an hour earlier. Years later, he began to vacillate again.

“That was an indication that the timing may not have been as firm as we thought,” Schwartz said.

Coley was a model prisoner during his 38 years and 10 months of incarceration, Brown wrote. He avoided gangs and drugs, and earned his bachelor’s degree.

“I understand that he’s not bitter, that he has a positive attitude, which I think is quite remarkable,” Schwartz said. “This whole case is tragic. The murder was tragic, and this is a waste of a person’s life.”

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An L.A. court mistakenly destroyed evidence a death row inmate says would free him. Now what?


December 17, 2017

From his small cell on California’s death row, Scott Pinholster swore he could prove his innocence. The proof, he said, was in the dried blood on a work boot and a pink towel recovered from his home years ago.

The condemned inmate insisted that modern DNA testing — nonexistent when he was convicted of a double murder in 1984 — would show the blood belonged to him, not the victims, as the prosecution argued at his trial.

But a recent search for the items has led to a disturbing discovery that could throw the case into jeopardy: The Los Angeles County courts mistakenly destroyed the evidence.

A judge must now determine what, if anything, should be done to remedy the high-stakes error.

Pinholster’s attorney has asked for a hearing on how the destruction happened and says he will eventually ask for a new trial. Prosecutors, however, argue that a killer’s life shouldn’t be spared simply because of an innocent mistake by court staff.

One of the jurors who voted to send Pinholster to death row more than three decades ago was shocked to hear that the man convicted of fatally stabbing and beating two men might get a second chance.

“Oh my God!” said the juror, who spoke on condition of anonymity, when recently contacted by The Times. “He’s liable to get off then?”

Pinholster is one of 744 people awaiting execution in California — the largest death row population in the country. Although the state hasn’t put anyone to death since 2006, that could soon change, as voters passed a measure last year to speed up the process. Of the state’s condemned inmates, about 20 have exhausted their appeals, putting them at the front of the line. Among them is Pinholster.

California law requires that courts keep evidence until after a death row inmate is executed or dies behind bars — a safeguard put in place to preserve evidence for future testing. Mary Hearn, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Superior Court, said the court’s procedure for destroying evidence, which was updated last year, now requires that staff first contact California’s Supreme Court to confirm a death row inmate has died. The court, Hearn said, began a review of its procedure before learning of Pinholster’s case.

Hearn said Pinholster, 58, is the only known example of evidence destruction in a case of a living death row inmate convicted in L.A. County. But a small number of cases around the country have raised similar legal problems.

On the eve of an execution in 2005, Virginia’s governor reduced a condemned death row inmate’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole after learning that a court clerk had destroyed evidence in his murder case despite being warned by subordinates not to do so. Two years later, a man on death row in Oklahoma was released from prison after a judge ruled that a police lab analyst had intentionally destroyed hair evidence that could have pointed to the inmate’s innocence.

Elisabeth Semel, a UC Berkeley law professor who directs the school’s clinic that defends condemned inmates facing execution, said destruction of physical evidence cripples the ability to examine an inmate’s innocence claim.

“If the very evidence you need is gone … how do you make justice happen for these individuals?” she said, describing the scenario as “terribly, terribly devastating.”

The importance of such tests was highlighted last month when Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned a prisoner who spent 39 years behind bars for the 1978 killing of a young woman and her 4-year-old son in Simi Valley. After the prisoner, Craig Coley, exhausted his appeals years ago, a judge authorized the destruction of the crime-scene evidence. But a cold-case detective recently found the evidence and when tested, it helped clear Coley of the murders.

For Pinholster, prosecutors point to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes it difficult for prisoners to reverse convictions or reduce sentences unless they can show that evidence was destroyed in “bad faith.” In Pinholster’s case, prosecutors argue, the destruction was the result of “at most negligence, incompetency, recklessness,” but not “bad faith.”

At his trial, a prosecutor argued that the blood on the boot and towel found in the defendant’s Van Nuys apartment belonged to at least one of the two victims — Thomas Johnson, 25, and Robert Beckett, 29. The men were stabbed and beaten to death at the Tarzana home of a marijuana dealer on Jan. 9, 1982.

The state’s key witness, Art Corona, told police that he, Pinholster and a third man, Paul Brown, were all armed with buck knives when they barreled into the home looking to steal drugs and cash. Minutes later, Corona said, the two victims showed up. Pinholster attacked the men with a knife, his fists and his feet, Corona said, adding that Brown also stabbed one of the men.

Their loot: $23 and a quarter-ounce of pot.

Pinholster said he had stolen drugs from the home a few hours before the killings but never harmed anyone. When he took the stand, he seemed to revel in his criminal record. Asked for his occupation, he smirked and responded, “a crook,” according to court documents. He also boasted to jurors of having committed hundreds of robberies, but insisted he’d always carried guns, not knives.

A Sheriff’s Department criminalist told jurors that he’d tested the right work boot and towel collected from Pinholster’s home and found they came back positive for human blood, but technology at the time couldn’t narrow down whose blood it was. The prosecutor suggested that Pinholster had stepped in a pool of blood at the Tarzana home and used the towel to wipe off the murder weapon.

Neither Pinholster nor his attorney argued at trial that the blood was from him — an omission the district attorney’s office said undercuts his current claim. His new attorney said Pinholster was never asked during the trial who the blood belonged to.

Contacted recently, another juror who asked to be identified only as a 76-year-old woman said she was confident in the verdict.

“He was absolutely guilty,” she said. “No question.”

Even after three decades, she said, she can conjure a haunting memory of an image painted at trial by the prosecutor — Pinholster, wearing boots, kicking in the skull of one of the victims.

After his conviction, state courts rejected appeals from Pinholster, but a federal judge overturned the death sentence in 2003, ruling that his trial counsel had failed to tell jurors about the extent of Pinholster’s mental health problems. In 2011, however, the U.S. Supreme Court restored Pinholster’s death sentence.

“He’s been very discouraged,” said Sean Kennedy, Pinholster’s current lawyer.

But months after having his death penalty restored, the inmate got good news. A judge had finally approved his request to have DNA testing done on the towel and boot. Pinholster contends that the bloodstains came from his repeated intravenous use of heroin.

A Los Angeles police officer was assigned to scour an LAPD storage room for the items in case the court had returned them after the trial. The search came up empty, so officers checked inside another police storage facility. Still nothing. As the hunt stretched into a fourth year, Kennedy grew suspicious. Finally, a prosecutor stepped in to help speed up the process.

“And that,” Kennedy said, with a shake of his head, “is when they finally fessed up.”

Court documents from January 1998 show that People vs. Pinholster was mistakenly listed among more than a dozen cases deemed eligible for evidence destruction. The trial exhibits, records show, were destroyed that summer. Two top Los Angeles County Superior Court officials signed the destruction order — Judge John Reid and Ty Colgrove, an administrator who helped run the court’s criminal operations. Both men have since retired.

Reached for comment, Colgrove said he didn’t recall the case, as he’d signed hundreds of destruction orders over the years, but added that he relied on lower-level employees to properly sort through the cases.

Hearn, the court spokeswoman, said Reid could not comment, as he still sometimes fills in on the bench. In a recently signed declaration, Reid wrote that if he’d known the evidence from a capital case was going to be destroyed, he “would not have signed the order.”

Kennedy, an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School whose work on Pinholster’s case carried over from his days as the federal public defender for the Central District of California, bristled at the rationale.

“It’s almost like the judiciary is facilitating wrongful executions,” he said.

Life on death row has worn on Pinholster. Last year, as California voters weighed two options — speeding up executions or banning the death penalty — Pinholster was quoted in a Times article, expressing apathy.

“After 30 years,” he said, “you don’t care one way or the other.”

But there’s still some hope for his exoneration, Kennedy said, pointing to trial exhibit 29 — a pair of bloodstained jeans also recovered from Pinholster’s home years ago. While court employees have said they presume the jeans are lost or destroyed, they haven’t found any documents showing they were, in fact, discarded.

Kennedy has asked for a special hearing so he can question the court officials who approved the destruction. A judge is expected to rule on that request early next year.

For Michael Kumar, the former marijuana dealer who lived at the home where the killings took place, the mention of Pinholster brings a rush of memories. Although he’d been out of town the weekend of the murders, the pain is still raw over the loss of Johnson, his best friend — a gentle giant who loved to play classical piano. When asked about the possibility of a new trial, Kumar sighed.

“It’s preposterous to me…. It’s completely a joke if this guy says he’s innocent,” said Kumar, 58, who now sells parts for and restores classic cars. “I’m not going to say he doesn’t have the right, because I’m not sure what the technicalities are, but it’s just that — a technicality.”

 

Wrongly Imprisoned for Killing His Infant Daughter, a Father Could Go Free This Week


December 5,2017

The science on shaken baby syndrome, it turns out, was not actually sound and should not have been used for putting this father behind bars.

This story was originally published by The Chronicle of Social Change, a nonprofit news publication that covers issues affecting vulnerable children, youth and their families, and has been republished here with permission.

There was no doubt about the horror of the situation: A 4-month-old baby girl was dead.

The question facing the jurors was less clear-cut: Was the tiny girl’s death accidental, or had she been murdered by her own father?

On the afternoon of Nov. 24, 2001, in Sacramento, California, 18-year-old Zavion Johnson had called an ambulance. His baby daughter Nadia had been sleepy all day and then had stopped breathing.

Responding paramedics gave her CPR, pushed a breathing tube down her throat, and rushed her to the hospital. There, doctors discovered Nadia had terrible internal head injuries, including a fractured skull. Suspecting abuse, they called the police.

ohnson would later tell his family that earlier that morning, he had accidentally dropped Nadia while showering with her. The girl had hit her head on the back of the cast-iron bathtub but had seemed to recover. Questioned by police, the frightened teenager at first didn’t say anything about the accident. That impulse backfired horribly on him.

Nadia died two days later. On the day of her funeral, Johnson was arrested and charged with her murder.

At trial, Johnson’s lawyer told the court about the fall in the shower, and more than a dozen people testified that he was a gentle and loving father who had never mistreated the baby.

None of the prosecution’s witnesses said anything to the contrary. Instead, the deputy district attorney held up Johnson’s inconsistent statements as evidence of his guilt. The clincher, however, was the testimony of three medical experts, who all declared that the nature and pattern of Nadia’s injuries could not have been caused by a short fall, but only by violent shaking.

“This is a classic case of shaken baby syndrome,” Deputy District Attorney Chris Cosca told the jury. “We know that this little girl lost her life because of a brutally violent shaking, the violent acceleration-deceleration, the rotational injury, and the impact against a hard surface. That’s the only way it can be explained. And there is no way on earth that she suffered these injuries by virtue of a simple drop in the tub. No way.”

Johnson was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. Sixteen years later, he is still in prison.

But it turns out Cosca was wrong.

In the past year, two of the key medical witnesses who supported the shaken baby diagnosis at Johnson’s trial have disavowed their testimony, and the district attorney’s office now supports Johnson’s attempt to have his conviction overturned. On Dec. 8, Johnson and his legal team are hoping to learn whether he’ll now be able to go home.

There used to something close to a medical consensus that certain patterns of injuries can only be caused by shaking. In particular, a “triad”—swelling of the brain, bleeding on the brain’s surface, and bleeding behind the retinas—was believed to be solid proof that a baby had been abused in this way. The theory was put forward in the early 1970s by doctors trying to explain the deaths of infants and children with no outward signs of abuse. The diagnosis soon became accepted as scientific fact and has since been used to convict hundreds of people of harming or killing children.

But over the past 20 years, a body of new research has shown how diseases, genetic conditions and accidents—including short falls—can produce the same constellation of injuries. As a result, faith in shaken baby syndrome is unraveling.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2009 that doctors stop using the term. A 2015 investigation by the Washington Post found at least 16 shaken baby syndrome murder convictions that have been overturned.

Scores of other cases that collapsed before trial because of the doubts around the “triad” as evidence. One of those cases was another Sacramento County father convicted of killing his 4-month-old son.

Dr. Norman Guthkelch, a pediatric neurosurgeon who was one of the first to advance the hypothesis behind shaken baby syndrome, recently stated that it is “high time every case of a parent in [prison] for this had his or her case reviewed” because “we went badly off the rails … on this matter.”

“Our decision … was not a difficult one,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi wrote in an email. “Had the information currently available on the topic been available then, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial could have been different.”

That doesn’t mean Johnson goes free automatically; the DA could still ask for a retrial, though that seems unlikely. Johnson is now awaiting a judge’s order to let him go. After spending nearly half his life behind bars, he is hoping to be back with his family in time for Christmas.

There is no definitive accounting of how many people are prosecuted and incarcerated on the basis of this questionable science, but the number is certainly substantial.

database maintained by the Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project, last updated in 2015, includes more than 3,000 shaken baby syndrome criminal cases in the United States over the past 20 years, though not all of them are still current. The Washington Post’s investigation estimated hundreds of parents and caregivers were being prosecuted each year, and tallied 1,600 convictions since 2001. At least three such convictions have landed people on death row, according to a recent New Scientist article.

The Innocence Project, a national network of advocates for prisoners who are wrongfully convicted, is reviewing about 100 cases involving shaken baby syndrome.

Some medical experts still support the use of the diagnosis, now more commonly called “abusive head trauma,” as at least one form of evidence that can help determine whether a child’s death was accidental or the result of violence. Nobody disputes that violently shaking a baby can injure or kill; the tricky part is figuring out whether that actually happened. And once someone has been convicted of lethal child abuse, convincing a court to undertake that task again is not easy.

The collateral damage for mistaking an accident for maltreatment can extend beyond a jail term. Parents accused of contributing to a child’s death can face the removal of all children from the home.

2010 study published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect notes that “little data are available about what happens to these siblings after the victim’s death.” Using records from Oklahoma’s child fatality review, the study concluded that the presence of young siblings, previous maltreatment reports and the nature of the fatal incident were predictors of removal after a death.

In an essay published in the in the American Academy of Pediatrics News, two physicians argued that the recent controversy over shaken baby syndrome should not take away from correctly diagnosing cases of child abuse.

“Like the back-and-forth over childhood immunizations, this is a false debate,” Howard Dubowitz and Errol Alden wrote in the 2015 piece. “The truth is that child abuse, including abusive head trauma, is a real problem that terribly injures and sometimes kills children.”

From his cell in a state prison in central California, Johnson struggled for years to get judges to take another look at his case, filing appeal after appeal, to no effect. Finally, in 2014, he got in touch with the Northern California Innocence Project, where attorney Paige Kaneb took the case.

“I’d been on another shaken baby case, so I’m a bit obsessed with the issue,” she said.

Over the next couple of years, she gathered materials and got in touch with the experts whose testimony had sent Johnson to prison. In early 2017, two of them came declared they could no longer stand behind that testimony.

“I was following my training and experience, in conjunction with the consensus opinions at the time, in classifying Nadia’s death as having resulted from abuse,” wrote Dr. Gregory Reiber, the forensic pathologist who performed Nadia’s autopsy, in a letter to the court. “However … because of the significant changes in the understanding of childhood head injury that have developed since trial, my opinion about the cause of Nadia’s injuries has also changed.”

Nadia’s injuries, he now concluded, “are consistent with the accidental fall in the bathtub described by Zavion Johnson.”

University of California–Davis neuropathologist Claudia Greco also walked back her testimony, writing that the damage she focused on “does not prove that Nadia Johnson was violently shaken or that her injuries were intentionally inflicted.” A third expert who didn’t testify at trial but reviewed the case later also stated that Nadia’s injuries could have been caused by the fall Johnson described.

Kaneb and her colleagues filed a petition to have his conviction struck down. On Oct. 31, the district attorney’s office threw their support behind it.

Johnson is still in occasional touch with Nadia’s mother, but she now has two other kids and a fiancée, Johnson told me via a letter from prison. He’s gotten training as an electrician while locked up and wants to do community advocacy when he gets out.

“I’m excited and nervous, but scared of failing,” Johnson writes. “All the people that have helped me, I don’t want to disappoint anyone.”

He still thinks often about Nadia, whose picture he has tattooed on his chest.

“I can’t wait to visit her grave,” he writes. “I haven’t been able to do that yet.”

After 22 years, Ernesto Martinez convicted of Blythe murder during deadly road trip


December 4, 2017

Twenty two years ago, a desperate man stepped into the Day & Nite Mini Mart in Blythe, pulled a gun, demanded money and shot the clerk behind the counter. Then he grabbed the cash and fled.

That killer, a jury said, was Ernesto Salgado Martinez.

Martinez, 42, was convicted Monday of murdering Randip Singh, a shopkeeper who was gunned down during a deadly road trip to Arizona and back in 1995. The verdict, which took three-and-a-half days to reach, brings closure to one of the longest and most convoluted prosecutions in the recent history of Riverside County. Martinez’s verdict was confirmed by John Hall, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office.

Martinez, who was only 19 at the time, drove from Indio to Arizona to visit his family members, then was pulled over by a highway patrol officer along the Beeline Highway. Martinez shot that officer, Bob Martin, then fled back to California, where he crossed the state line and ran out of gas in Blythe. Prosecutors say Martinez then robbed the mini-mart, shooting Singh when he refused to empty the register.

During closing arguments last week, Deputy District Attorney Chris Cook said there was “overwhelming” evidence that Martinez was fleeing from one murder and killed again to keep running.

“The thing standing between him and getting home to Indio – a place of safety, family and familiarity – was Randip,” Cook said. “He was out of options and out of gas. He had just killed a police officer, he had to get home.”

“And he had a gun.”

Martinez, who taught himself law during two decades behind bars, acted as his own attorney during a six-week trial. In his own closing arguments, he accused witnesses of changing their stories and implied that a key piece of the evidence – a bullet casing – had been planted. He told jurors the prosecution’s case had “insulted their intelligence.”

“They are not asking you to decide this case based on the evidence. They are asking you to decide this case based on prejudice,” Martinez said.Martinez was also on trial for attempted murder, accused of stabbing his cell mate, Leroy Gutierrez, 50 times in 2011. Martinez argued that the stabbing was self defense, and jury acquitted him of the attempted murder charge on Monday.

The murder case will now proceed to the sentencing phase, at which prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty. However, regardless of how Martinez is sentenced, once the decision is made he will be returned to Arizona, where he has already received the death penalty for killing Martin, the highway patrol officer. Even if Martinez is sentenced to death in California, Arizona will still get to kill him first.

After the Blythe shooting, police captured Martinez during a standoff in Indio. Martinez was prosecuted in Arizona first, where he was convicted of killing Martin in 1998. Twelve years later, in 2010, local prosecutors had Martinez pulled off of Arizona Death Row and brought to Riverside County to be tried for Singh’s death. Now back in California, Martinez fired his public defender and became his own attorney. His case then took seven years to get to trial, in part because of Martinez’s talent for filing and arguing pre-trial motions.

“He is incredibly dangerous because he is so bright,” District Attorney Mike Hestrin said of Martinez in 2015. “I would like to get him out of our system and out of our jail. And one of the ways to do that is to get this case to trial as quickly as possible.”

Thanksgiving on Death Row


                                                            “Free Me,” a painting by Kevin Cooper. (Kevin Cooper)

Kevin Cooper was convicted of a 1983 quadruple murder in a trial in which evidence that might have exonerated him was withheld from the defense. His case was scrutinized in a June 19 New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof. Visit savekevincooper.org for more information.

DEATH ROW, SAN QUENTIN, Calif.—As I sit here in a 4½-by-11-foot cage on Thanksgiving Day, I first and foremost am thankful to be alive. On Feb. 10, 2004, I came within 3 hours and 42 minutes of being strapped down to a gurney, tortured with lethal poison and murdered by volunteer prison-guard executioners. So, yes, I am very thankful to be alive. I am also very thankful for all the people—my legal team, friends, family, supporters and activists working to end the death penalty—who have helped make my being alive possible.

I have been in a cage like this, with two feet of space between the side of the bed and the wall, for most of my adult life, for murders I did not commit. I eat prison slop for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the guards look up my butt at least once a day to make sure I don’t have contraband when I leave this cage.

I have been on death row in the state of California for more than 32 years, having come to this place in May 1985, and I have been fighting for my life ever since. This modern-day plantation in which I am forced to live is a very dirty and inhumane place for any human being.

After my stay of execution in 2004, I went on to suffer from post-traumatic stress for years due to that sick ritual of death this prison put me through. No human being should ever have to endure what I have, not even if they are guilty of the crime they were convicted of committing.

I am innocent, and my fate now lies in the hands of Gov. Jerry Brown. On Feb. 17, 2016, Norman Hile, my pro bono attorney from the prestigious law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, filed my petition for clemency in the office of Gov. Brown. I have respectfully asked the governor and others to look at my case with an open mind, outside the legal box that has me close to being killed for murders of which I am innocent. Doing this is truly important, especially now that many Americans are learning from frequent news reports the truth about America’s criminal justice system and some of the people who work within it.

People have learned that this system is dishonest, and that some of its investigators, prosecutors and judges cannot be trusted and are more concerned with winning cases or with following their political ideology than with truth or justice. This is especially true in my case.

Start with the fact that for the first time in the history of the death penalty in California, as well as within the history of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, 11 federal circuit court judges dissented in one death penalty case—mine.

To show their concern as to why my case should be heard on its merits before I am executed, six of the 11 stated these words of dissent in my last appeal: “Public confidence in the proper administration of the death penalty depends on the integrity of the process followed by the state. … [Twenty-four] years of flawed proceedings are as good as no proceedings at all.”

The other five judges, showing their concern about the truth not being told in my case, stated: “The state of California may be about to execute an innocent man.” (One of them, Judge William Fletcher, later said in a speech at New York University Law School: “[Kevin Cooper] is on death row because the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department framed him.”)

A 12th judge wrote in a separate opinion: “Significant evidence bearing on Cooper’s culpability has been lost, destroyed or left unpursued, including, for example, blood-covered coveralls belonging to a potential suspect who was a convicted murderer, and a bloody t-shirt discovered alongside the road near the crime scene. … Countless other alleged problems with the handling and disclosure of evidence and the integrity of the forensic testing and investigation undermine confidence in the outcome.”

There have been many judges in other cases who have turned a blind eye to the truth and let a poor person get executed, even when there were serious doubts about that person’s guilt, but it is rare for judges to speak out against a possible execution. If these 12 judges are ignored, what will happen to me will not be my execution but my murder at the hands of the state of California.

The political ideology of many judges allows them to ignore truth and injustice. Politics—the politics of life and death—do play a very real part in this country’s criminal justice system. That is why Republicans in Washington, D.C., would not allow President Obama to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court [after his death]. This truth may never be admitted in words, but actions speak louder than words. Among these actions are the continuing oppression of people like me, who are poor and fighting for our lives from within this rotten criminal justice system.

So while finality, rather than justice, may be what certain judges are more concerned with, it is my hope that others in positions of authority—in particular the governor—will see the miscarriage of justice in my case and stand up and speak out to prevent this state from murdering me.

What makes my case unique in many ways is the fact that a dozen federal judges did just that—they stood up and spoke out against my questionable conviction—based on all the evidence and not just what the state claims after hiding, lying, destroying, tampering with, withholding and manipulating the evidence, all of which is exposed in my clemency petition to Gov. Brown.

Just because other judges in my case chose not to acknowledge the truth about it doesn’t mean I’m guilty. This can be said for all the people who have been exonerated for crimes, including murder, they did not commit. Certain judges in their cases upheld bogus convictions and then closed the cases.

I am respectfully asking you, no matter who you are, no matter your religion, your political party, your skin color or your sexual orientation, no matter what your job is, your economic class, or anything else that makes you the individual you are, to please get involved in this fight to save my life, as well as the fight for our collective humanity.

While I may indeed be murdered by the state of California in the not-too- distant future, this fight is not just about me. It is much bigger than me or any one person. It is about us as a people bringing to an end the historic and horrific crime against humanity that is only done against America’s poor people, especially its black people like me.

My legal team and I have petitioned the governor to grant me an innocence investigation so that he and everyone else can learn the truth about the law enforcement misconduct in my case, as well as DNA testing that we hope will reveal the real killer’s DNA and exonerate me.

We are asking the governor to grant me a reprieve so that if this state resumes executions, I will not be executed. The state has me marked for death and has me at the top of the execution list, in part because it did not torture and murder me in 2004, and subsequently because of the attention my case is now receiving, with many people, including several jurors who convicted me, believing in my innocence.

There is entirely too much sadness and pain and inhumanity inside these modern-day prison/plantations to go into any one essay. Just know that I am thankful on this Thanksgiving Day that my spirit has endured and is keeping me alive, when all around me is death.

Charles Manson, leader of murderous ’60s cult, dead at 83


November 20,2017

Charles Manson, the wild-eyed 1960s cult leader whose followers committed heinous murders that terrorized Los Angeles and shocked the nation, died Sunday of natural causes, according to the California Department of Corrections. He was 83.

Manson served nine life terms in California prisons and was denied parole 12 times. His notoriety, boosted by popular books and films, made him a cult figure to those fascinated by his dark apocalyptic visions.
“He was the dictatorial ruler of the (Manson) family, the king, the Maharaja. And the members of the family were slavishly obedient to him,” former prosecutor Victor Bugliosi told CNN in 2015.
To the point they would kill for him.
The brutal killings began on August 9, 1969, at the home of actress Sharon Tate and her husband, famed movie director Roman Polanski. He was out of the country at the time. The first set of victims were Tate, who was eight months’ pregnant; a celebrity hairstylist named Jay Sebring; coffee fortune heiress Abigail Folger; writer Wojciech Frykowski; and Steven Parent, a friend of the family’s caretaker.
The next evening, another set of murders took place. Supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, were killed at their home.
Although Manson ordered the killings, he didn’t participate.
Over the course of two nights, the killers took the lives of seven people, inflicting 169 stab wounds and seven .22-caliber gunshot wounds. Both crime scenes revealed horrifying details. And a few details linked the two crime scenes.
The word pig was written in victim blood on the walls of one home and the front door of another. There was also another phrase apparently scrawled in blood: Helter Skelter (it was misspelled Healter). The reason for the disturbing writings, the prosecutor argued, was because Manson wanted to start a race war and had hoped the Black Panthers would be blamed for the killings.
On June 16, 1970, Manson and three of his followers — Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten — went on trial in Los Angeles.
All of those details came tumbling out in the trial that both mesmerized and horrified the nation. During the trial, Manson and his followers created a circus-like atmosphere in the court with singing, giggling, angry outbursts and even carving X’s in their foreheads.
The charges came after a major break in the case when Atkins, who was already in jail on another charge, bragged to a fellow inmate about the Tate murders. She said they did it “because we wanted to do a crime that would shock the world. …”
Manson was originally sentenced to death but the death penalty was briefly abolished in the state and his concurrent sentences were commuted to life in prison.
He also was convicted in the connection with the killings of Gary Hinman, a musician, and stuntman Donald “Shorty” Shea in 1969.

California Death Penalty, Struck Down Over Delays, Faces Next Test


August 29,2015 (NYT)

Whether California’s application of the death penalty is so drawn out and arbitrary that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment will be argued on Monday before a federal appeals court in Pasadena.

If the lawyers for a condemned man are victorious, the case could bring a reprieve to more than 740 prisoners now on death row at San Quentin State Prison and send legal ripples across the country. Either way, legal experts say, it raises issues about the administration of capital punishment that are likely to reach the Supreme Court over time.

In Monday’s hearing before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, California officials will seek to overturn a surprise ruling last year by a lower federal court, which declared the state’s “death penalty system” to be unconstitutional

Hailed by death penalty opponents as a breakthrough and attacked by others as unwise and legally out of line, the decision was issued on July 16, 2014, by Judge Cormac J. Carney of Federal District Court in Santa Ana. It focused not on disparities in the meting out of death sentences in the first place — the more familiar charge — but on the decades of tangled and prolonged reviews that follow and the rarity of actual executions.

In a scathing account of what he called a dysfunctional system, Judge Carney noted that of the more than 900 people who had been sentenced to death in California since 1978, when the current legal structure was established, only 13 had been executed.

Citing growing delays in a judicial review process that can take 25 years or more, far above the national norm, Judge Carney said death sentences had been transformed, in effect, into “life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

The “random few” who are put to death, he said, “will have languished for so long on death row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.”

Judge Carney ruled on the appeal of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was condemned to die in 1995 for a murder and rape and made a last-ditch plea to a federal court after his appeals to the California Supreme Court had been denied. The judge vacated Mr. Jones’s death sentence as he declared California’s capital-punishment process to be generally unconstitutional.

The decision was a stunning one, and California officials have sharply challenged it on both procedure and substance. They say it was illegitimate because Mr. Jones’s arguments about the arbitrariness of the review system — issues going beyond the long delays alone — had not first been considered in the California courts, as required.

Beyond that, according to the brief from the state’s attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, a Democrat, the delays and rarity of executions do not reflect random quirks. Rather, it says, they are a product of California’s effort to be scrupulously fair, ensuring that condemned prisoners have high-quality lawyers and every opportunity to question the legality of their sentences.

California legislators have required such exhaustive reviews and procedures as “an important safeguard against arbitrariness and caprice,” the state holds, quoting from a 1976 Supreme Court decision.

In a plebiscite in 2012, California voters affirmed the death penalty by a narrow margin, with 52 percent voting to keep it and 48 percent voting to replace it with life in prison without parole.

California inmates normally wait three to five years just for the appointment of a qualified defense lawyer, a delay that may be repeated as convicts pursue two successive state appeals and then a federal one. Beyond the prolonged process of reviewing death sentences, California has had a de facto moratorium on executions since 2006 because of disputes over the method of lethal injection.

The questions of arbitrariness and extreme delay that are raised by the Jones case are important and may well gain purchase in the courts, said Eric M. Freedman, a professor of constitutional law and death penalty expert at Hofstra University.

“But that does not necessarily mean that this particular litigation will be the vehicle by which the courts resolve these issues,” he added, noting that procedural or other questions could lead the appeals panel to overrule the Jones decision.

The arguments made by Mr. Jones’s lawyers — and echoed by Judge Carney — are similar in part to those made in June by Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the Supreme Court. In a sweeping dissent, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Breyer went beyond the lethal-injection issue at hand to ask whether the death penalty was so marred by unreliable decisions, arbitrary application and delays that it should be abolished.

But conservative justices responded that death penalty opponents, in their zeal to erect obstacles to executions, were responsible for inordinate delays and unpredictability.

If the Ninth Circuit and even the Supreme Court should uphold Judge Carney’s ruling, this would not necessarily cause the death penalty to unravel nationwide, said Douglas A. Berman, an expert on criminal law at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

Judge Carney’s decision turned on details specific to California, and with its high number of condemned prisoners and very low pace of executions, the state is in a class by itself, Mr. Berman said. Still, he added, a similar critique might succeed in a few other states, including Pennsylvania and Florida.

Given the deep divisions within California over the death penalty, Mr. Berman added, the state may, in an odd way that has nothing to do with constitutional principles, be well served by the status quo.

“Voters, and perhaps the executive branch, too, are not that troubled with a system that has lots of death sentences and few executions,” Mr. Berman said.

The death penalty is about to go on trial in California. Here’s why it might lose


On Aug. 31, the death penalty will go on trial at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The oral argument stems from a judgment in 2014, in which Federal District Judge Cormac Carney ruled that California’s death penalty system was unconstitutional.
Carney argued that because of the extremely low likelihood of execution and long delays on death row, the system was actually a penalty of life without parole with the remote possibility of death. His ruling declared that execution after such a long delay serves no retributive or deterrent purpose beyond the long prison term, and is therefore arbitrary and unconstitutional (see Jones v. Chappell, 2014). As Carney wrote in his California decision, no rational jury or legislature would design a system that functions as the system actually works. But, he argued, we must evaluate the system we do have, not the one we might prefer to have.
Nationwide, the “new” death penalty consists of 20 years or more on death row, followed by some probability of execution. The average delay from crime to execution for those executed since 2010 is 16 years across the United States, even longer in California, as the judge noted. 38 % of inmates executed nationally since 2010 served more than 20 years; 17 % served more than 25 years; 5 inmates were killed after more than 35 years of delay. The vast majority are never executed.
In a previous post Anna Dietrich and I documented that only about 16 % of condemned inmates across the nation have been executed. By far, the most likely outcome of a death sentence is that it will be overturned on appeal. Many death row inmates simply die of old age. For those few where the death sentence is actually carried out, increasing percentages languish on death row literally for decades before execution.
Supporters of the death penalty argue that Carney overstepped with his sweeping decision throwing out the entire California death penalty. Oral arguments in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will begin at the end of this month. California certainly was at the low end of the distribution of “efficiency” in carrying out its death sentences in our previous analysis. Out of more than 900 death sentences, the state has carried out just 13 executions. It stands as one of the few states, along with Pennsylvania, that has large numbers of death sentences that result in very few executions.
What’s the lag time between sentence and execution outside California?
Except for Virginia, no state in the country carries out even 1/2 of all its death sentences. The most common outcome after a death penalty, by far, is reversal of the death sentence with a new sentence of life without parole. Inmates may sit on death row for years before this reversal.
This graph looks at 1,379 of the 1,394 executions that were carried out between 1977 and 2014 (I could not recover the date of the crime for 15 cases), showing the length of time from crime to execution. Of course, inmates do not move straight from the crime scene to death row. However, there has been no significant increase in the time between crime and death sentence, which averages 1.5 years.
Why is there so much time from sentence to execution?
Delays come for many reasons. Death penalties in California and elsewhere trigger a mandatory appeal to a state’s top court, and then, if not reversed, through the federal system. These are part of the safeguards mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1976 Gregg decision ushering in the “modern” death penalty. Carney noted that in California, appeals attorneys are not appointed for 3 to 5 years. They take 4 years to learn the case and file their appeal. Attorneys for habeas appeal (through the federal courts) are not appointed, on average, until 8 to 10 years after the death sentence.
Most of this delay results from a severe backlog of death penalty cases, a lack of qualified attorneys who are willing to accept capital assignments under the conditions that the state offers, and delays in appointing required qualified defense counsel.
How long does it take, exactly, to carry out the death penalty?
Each dot on the figure refers to a particular inmate executed. At the lower-left corner, the 1st case is the 1st “modern” execution: Gary Gilmore, executed by firing squad in Utah in 1977. Vertical placement of the dot indicates the number of years from the crime to the execution. Horizontal placement indicates the date of the execution.
As you can see, some executions occur relatively quickly, even today. Across the bottom of the graph are those inmates who “volunteer” for execution by instructing their attorneys to abandon all appeals. 20 of the 206 inmates executed since 2010 waited fewer than 5 years from crime to execution. However, you can see that average delays are increasing dramatically (about one additional year of delay every 3 years), and that increasing numbers of inmates are serving very long sentences before being executed. Many more remain on death row with no execution in sight.
For the 206 inmates executed since 2010, their average time from crime to execution was 16 years. 36 served more than 25 years before their execution. Overall, through 2014, 178 inmates have been executed after serving more than 20 years; 58 after more than 25 years; 14 after more than 30 years; and 5 after more than 35 years. Florida executed Thomas Knight in January 2014 for a crime committed in January 1974 – almost 40 years later. In contrast, Gilmore was killed by Utah’s firing squad in January 1977 for a crime that occurred in July 1976. Knight’s crime came 2 years before Gilmore’s, but he waited another 37 years after Gilmore’s execution on Florida’s death row before that state put him to death.
In the recent Glossip v. Gross decision affirming the use of lethal injection, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed its support for the death penalty in the opening words of the majority decision: “Because capital punishment is constitutional, there must be a constitutional means for carrying it out.”
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer noted a number of practical problems with the administration of the punishment. He noted 3 “fundamental constitutional defects”: 1) unreliability; 2) arbitrariness; and 3) unconscionably long delays. These have led, he wrote, to 4) abandonment of the penalty by most places within the United States. Since the Court’s 1976 reaffirmation of capital punishment, replete with new constitutional “safeguards sufficient to ensure that the penalty would be applied reliably and not arbitrarily,” numerous practical problems have emerged, Breyer wrote. “The circumstances and the evidence of the death penalty’s application have changed radically since then,” he wrote. “Given those changes, I believe it is now time to reopen the question.”
Source: The Washington Post, Frank Baumgartner, August 5, 2015. Mr. Baumgartner is the Richard J. Richardson distinguished professor of political science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

 

California: Six inmates on San Quentin death row sue over time in solitary


A group of death row inmates has sued the state for keeping them in solitary confinement for years or even decades, locked in windowless cells with no phone calls or human contact. It’s treatment, they said, that “amounts to torture.”
The suit was filed in federal court Wednesday by 6 condemned prisoners, who said they were among about 100 inmates, out of 750 on death row, who are kept in isolation in the Adjustment Center at San Quentin State Prison as suspected gang members or associates. The suit said they are held in their cells 21 to 24 hours a day, with no natural light, no access to education or work programs, no phone calls and no contact visits from family members, who must speak to them by phone across a glass barrier.
One of the men has been in solitary confinement for 26 years, and 2 others for more than a decade, the suit said. Condemned prisoners in California spend an average of nearly 25 years on death row while their cases are appealed. A federal judge cited the duration of their confinement, though not the conditions, in a ruling last year that declared the state’s death penalty unconstitutional. The state has appealed the ruling.
The suit is similar to a case scheduled for trial in December in federal court in Oakland over the solitary confinement of thousands of inmates in various prisons’ Security Housing Units, the maximum-security lockups that house prisoners suspected of gang affiliations. The San Quentin suit was filed separately because the adjustment center isn’t classified as a Security Housing Unit, although the conditions are similar, said Daniel Siegel, lawyer for the death row inmates.
Inmates in both cases claim their isolation violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment and denies them due process of law. Until recently, they said, the only way out of the isolation unit was to become an informant. Prison officials say they now conduct case-by-case reviews of each inmate’s gang status or affiliations, and have released some inmates into the general prison population. But inmates say they are still kept in solitary confinement because of books they’ve read or cartoons found in their cells.
Siegel said release from isolation is even harder to win on death row. He said some inmates have been kept in the Adjustment Center solely because their capital crimes were gang-related.
Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said officials haven’t seen the suit and can’t comment on it. But she said no inmates are held in the cells for 24 hours a day, because they’re entitled to 10 hours a week in the prison exercise yard.
Source: Associated Press, June 19, 2015

Justice Kennedy practically invites a challenge to solitary confinement

Courts ‘may be required’ to decide if prisons need to find alternatives to solitary, Kennedy says

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in an unusual separate opinion in a case wrote that it may be time for judges to limit the use of long-term solitary confinement in prisons.

His comments accompanying a decision issued Thursday marked a rare instance of a Supreme Court justice virtually inviting a constitutional challenge to a prison policy.

“Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price,” he wrote. He cited the writings of Charles Dickens and 19th century Supreme Court opinions that recognized “even for prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement bears ‘a further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy.'”

Sentencing judges and the high court have largely ignored the issue, Kennedy said, focusing their attention on questions of guilt or innocence or on the constitutionality of the death penalty.

“In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required,” he wrote, “to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.”

Amy Fettig, an attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said Kennedy’s comments came as a welcome surprise.

“It’s a remarkable statement. The justice is sending a strong signal he is deeply concerned about the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement,” she said.

States such as Virginia and Texas routinely put death-row inmates in solitary confinement, she said. “They are automatically placed there. It has nothing to do with their being violent or their level of dangerousness,” she said.

This month, a federal judge in Virginia is weighing a “cruel and unusual punishment” claim brought by inmates on death row there, she noted.

Kennedy usually joins with the court’s conservatives in cases involving crime and punishment, but he has also voiced concern over prison policies that he deems unduly harsh. These include life terms for juveniles and long mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes. 4 years ago, he spoke for a 5-4 majority that condemned overcrowding in California’s prisons and said it resulted in unconstitutionally cruel conditions.

Both sides of Kennedy’s views were evident in Thursday’s decision. He joined a 5-4 majority to reject a San Diego murderer’s bid for a new trial, but wrote separately to raise the issue of possible constitutional limits to solitary confinement.

The case before the court involved Hector Ayala, who had been convicted and sentenced to die for shooting to death 3 men in the attempted robbery of an auto body shop in 1985. A 4th man had been shot, but survived and identified Ayala as the shooter.

Ayala has been on California’s death row ever since his conviction a generation ago. The California courts upheld his conviction and death sentence, but 2 years ago a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel overturned both. In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court cited the trial judge’s decision permitting prosecutors to remove all seven of the blacks and Latinos who were considered for the jury.

The Supreme Court reversed that decision and restored Ayala’s conviction and death sentence. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the “conscientious trial judge” had spoken to each of the potential jurors and decided the prosecutor was justified in removing them. “His judgment was entitled to great weight,” he concluded.

In his separate opinion, Kennedy said he agreed Alito’s opinion was “complete and correct,” but said he was nonetheless troubled to learn Ayala had been kept in solitary confinement. This means he has “been held for all or most of the past 20 years or more in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot for 23 hours a day,” he wrote. An estimated 25,000 inmates in the United States are being held in solitary confinement without regard to their conduct in prison, he added.

Kennedy’s comments drew a short, but sharp retort from Justice Clarence Thomas.

“The accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims … now rest. And, given that his victims were all 31 years or age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth,” Thomas wrote.

Source: Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2015

Fresno’s most notorious mass murder remembered


march 12, 2014

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) — On this day ten years ago Fresno was rocked by an unthinkable crime. Nine people were shot and killed inside their home. Marcus Wesson would be convicted of murdering his own kids and grandkids.

The Marcus Wesson case serves as Fresno’s most notorious mass murder. The crime scene was so disturbing it brought veteran officers to tears and drew worldwide attention.

People drive by a barely noticeable vacant lot near Roeding Park every day. Many of them unaware what took place here ten years ago. Cameron Caskey lived across the street. He said, “We actually ended up hearing two gun shots.”

Neighbors had no idea what police officers would discover inside 761 Hammond Avenue. Nine of Wesson’s children and grandchildren were shot dead and stacked in a back bedroom of the home.

Fresno police chief Jerry Dyer recalled, “The officers and the crime scene investigators that had to process that, as well as the investigators, it took a toll on them. It was one of the most horrific things this city has seen.”

Today Marcus Wesson sits on death row at San Quentin. He was convicted of nine counts of first degree murder and several counts of rape and molestation. Wesson fathered children with his underage daughters.

Fresno County Assistant DA Lisa Gamoan was chief prosecutor in the case. Gamoian said, “When you see the manipulation, the psychological methods he was using to control all the these girls, he even financially exploited them. It made sense he would be directing the ultimate act.”

Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan said, “It was astounding how deprived this defendant was.”

Gamoian set out to bring the victims to life for the jury. “How much of life we take for granted that they never got to experience.”

After the murders crowds disrupted the quiet neighborhood. Caskey said, “Even for years after that people would drive by Marcus Wesson’s property and slowly pass by. That got a little tiring.”

That is, until a local real estate group bought the home and tore it down. The property was later sold to the city of Fresno.

Marcus Wesson’s surviving children have talked about how it felt like living in a prison. Lisa Gamoian refers to family survivors as the walking wounded.

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