A Town's Terror, a Prosecutor's Power, a Betrayal of Innocence What follows is a short sampling of major felony cases discussed in MEAN JUSTICE in which prosecutorial and investigative misconduct or negligence led to injustice, false arrest or wrongful conviction. Cases in bold type occurred in Kern County, California, the setting for MEAN JUSTICE. A much longer, more complete list is contained in MEAN JUSTICE. UPDATED WITH MORE CASES SINCE PUBLICATION OF MEAN JUSTICE: Jump to new cases
* 1990: In a case described as the worst instance of prosecutorial misconduct in California history, two thousand years of prison sentences against seven men and women in People vs. Pitts are overturned and the defendants set free. Allegations that the Pitts Seven participated in a massive child molestation ring -- part of a collection of similar discredited cases that appeared in the 1980s in Kern County, California -- were subsequently dropped without retrial. The California Court of Appeal wrote that it found acts of prosecutorial misconduct "too numerous to chronicle" -- though the court went on for nearly a hundred pages citing instances of every type of misconduct imaginable, from providing false information to the jury, to introducing Jesus Christ himself as an unsworn witness for the government. In unusually strong language, the court wrote, "The record is replete with examples of an overzealous prosecutor who, in his blind quest to convict, forgot or ignored his constitutional and ethical duties as representative of the People."
* 1990: Clarence Brandley is released after a decade on Texas' death row because of official misconduct at every level: From police officers who threatened witnesses who could attest to Brandley's innocence, to a trial judge and prosecutor who held secret meetings to rehearse objections and rulings, to prosecutors who destroyed evidence proving Brandley's innocence, to a state attorney general who lied about results of a critical witness's lie detector test. The only reason Brandley was arrested: the victim of murder and rape had been a white school girl and the likely perpetrator was one of the five janitors at her school, only one of whom -- Brandley -- was black. The detective who arrested him told Brandley, "Since you're the nigger, you're elected." He came within days of being executed before a last-ditch appeals ruling saved him. All charges were subsequently dropped. A federal judge who examined the case later wrote: "In the thirty years this court has presided over matters in the judicial system, no case has presented a more shocking scenario of the effects of racial prejudice, perjured testimony, witness intimidation, an investigation the outcome of which was predetermined, and public officials who, for whatever motives, lost sight of what is right and just."
* 1990: The headline-grabbing corruption prosecution and conviction of former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock is thrown out when it is revealed that the bailiff in his trial had assured jurors Hedgecock was guilty, plied them with liquor during deliberations, talked over the evidence with them, partied with them during and after deliberations, and told them that a previous hung jury had failed to do its job by focusing on meaningless details raised by the defense. The bailiff and jurors admitted this gross misconduct to state law enforcement officials shortly after Hedgecock's conviction. There is no question this sort of misbehavior tainted the case and automatically entitled Hedgecock to a new trial, but prosecutors in San Diego kept this information secret for five years. When the improprieties finally came to light -- only after the California Supreme Court compelled prosecutors to divulge the information they had guarded so long -- Hedgecock was exonerated. In exchange for his plea to a single misdemeanor, numerous felonies were dismissed. He is now a radio talk show host.
* 1991: A conviction and life sentence against accused murder Jarnail Singh Jaspal is overturned because a Kern County prosecutor improperly advised the jury that Jaspal's decision to exercise his right to remain silent at an earlier hearing showed his guilty state of mind -- turning the Fifth Amendment on its head. Prosecutors in Kern County have been upbraided repeatedly for similar attempts to turn a citizen's rights into evidence of guilt.
* 1991: Gary Nelson is freed after eleven years on death row for the 1978 rape and murder of a six-year-old in Chatham County, Georgia, after it is revealed that his conviction was based on official lies, knowing use of false testimony, the suppression of evidence supporting his claims of innocence, and the hiding of information that implicated another man in the crime. There had been no eyewitness or fingerprints linking Nelson to the crime, and a search of his home turned up nothing. To combat these shortcomings, the prosecution manufactured phony scientific evidence linking Nelson to a hair found on the victim's body. The director of the Savannah Crime Lab said the hair came from Nelson when in fact, his lab never examined the hair. Additionally, a police detective swore falsely that Nelson's brother had linked the suspect to the murder weapon. The jury based its conviction largely on this information. Years later, the defense discovered an FBI report finding no link between Nelson and the hair, along with a tape recording of the brother being interviewed by police in which he consistently denied knowing anything about the murder weapon. It was also shown that police covered up an alibi witness that could have exonerated Nelson. Despite all this, Nelson lost his first two appeals -- the misconduct was deemed "harmless error." The Georgia Supreme Court finally granted him a new trial, and a newly elected Chatham County District Attorney refused to prosecute Nelson a second time, saying, "There is no material element of the state's case in the original trial which has not subsequently been determined to be impeached or contradicted."
* 1992: Four drug traffickers arrested by Kern County authorities near a remote area known as Stallion Springs are freed because deputies conducted an illegal search, then attempted to conceal this fact during sworn testimony. Prosecutors failed to disclose a key report documenting the illegal search. A Kern County judge admitted the evidence -- millions of dollars worth of PCP -- but an appeals court eventually threw out all convictions, quoting in its caustic opinion the well-known verse, "Oh what a tangled web we weave..." This case is an instance not of how misconduct may convict the innocent, but how it may set the guilty free once the truth surfaces.
* 1992: That same year in Phoenix, John Henry Knapp is freed from further prosecution after coming within three days of execution for the 1973 arson death of his baby. Shortly after the fatal fire, Knapp confessed to the crime, but then recanted within minutes, saying he was only trying to protect his wife, who had fled the state. He maintained his innocence from then on, but was convicted. At trial, the gas can that started the fire was introduced, and Maricopa County prosecutors presented evidence that the prints on it were smudged and unidentifiable. But this was false: there were usable prints on the can, none of them Knapp's. When the state Attorney General took over the case on appeal, it learned that the prints on the can belonged to Knapp's wife, who had been given immunity but was never called to testify. The prosecution had also kept hidden a secret tape recording of Knapp's phone call to his wife moments after his confession -- in which he confided in her he was innocent but had confessed in order to protect her. When Knapp asked her to come home, she responded: "They'll have to come and get me." Knapp's defense would eventually allege that the prosecution ignored and kept secret more than a hundred witness interviews that would have helped prove his innocence. When he was finally granted a new trial, Knapp agreed to plead no contest to a lesser charge in exchange for his immediate freedom.
* 1993: Margaret Kelly Michaels, in prison since 1988, is freed from her conviction on 115 counts of child abuse stemming from allegations that she had sexually assaulted twenty young students at the Wee Care Day Nursery in Maplewood, New Jersey, where she worked part time while saving up for acting school. The twenty-five-year-old woman was accused of forcing the children to have sex with her and to lick peanut butter off her genitals, sodomizing them with knives and forks, forcing them to insert objects into her anus, and forcing them to eat feces and urine. They also spoke of Michaels being able to levitate cars and trees, assaulting them with swords, and amputating children's penises. All of the abuse allegedly took place in the day care center when other teachers, as well as parents and children, were present in the building. No medical evidence confirmed the abuse. During Michaels' appeal, forty-five psychologists and child development experts filed a brief attesting to the fact that the children had been subjected to veritable brain-washing by police and prosecution, in which adult interrogators convinced them that they knew Michaels had done bad things and that they needed the help of the children to keep her locked up. Kids who gave the "right" answers were rewarded with police badges and other gifts. Those who gave the "wrong" answers about abuse at Wee Care were denied food or humiliated. The appeals court that granted Michaels a new trial deplored the prosecution's interrogation of the children, saying it denied Michaels a fair trial. The following tape-recorded exchange between interrogator and child was typical: Social Worker: Do you think that Kelly was not good when she was hurting you all? Child: Wasn't hurting me. I like her. Social Worker: I can't hear you, you got to look at me when you talk to me. Now when Kelly was bothering kids in the music room... Child: I got socks off. Social Worker: Did she make anybody else take their clothes off in the music room? Child: No. Social Worker: Yes. Child: No. (After the convictions were reversed and she was freed, another year and a half passed before prosecutors in New Jersey finally decided they would not retry Michaels, and she was fully exonerated.)
* 1993: Walter "Johnny D." McMillian of Monroeville, Alabama, is freed from his 1986 death sentence and declared innocent. The three main witnesses against him later revealed how they were coerced and pressured by police into incriminating McMillian (a tape of one such session, long kept secret by the police, was inadvertently handed over to one of McMillian's defense attorneys, corroborating the witness's claims). The pressure to convict McMillian was so great that he was actually placed on death row before he went to trial. Though he had many alibi witnesses, no criminal record, and there was no physical evidence linking him to the murder of a young employee of a dry cleaning shop, the case was not reopened until Sixty Minutes did a report on McMillian's approaching execution. Prosecutors eventually admitted to mishandling the case, and McMillian went on to testify before Congress about the plight of an innocent man on death row: "I was wrenched form my family, from my children, from my grandchildren, from my friends, from my work that I loved, and was placed in an isolation cell, the size of a shoe box, with no sunlight, no companionship, and no work for nearly six years. Every minute of every day, I knew I was innocent."
* 1994: After sixteen years in prison, Charles "Treetop" Tomlin is freed through a last-ditch appeal to his murder conviction. Though the grounds for overturning the case focused on ineffective assistance of counsel, the underlying facts showed Kern County prosecutors had introduced evidence from an illegal line-up in order to win the guilty verdict. Then they fought for years to keep Tomlin jailed, even though the only witness against him -- the murder victim's girlfriend -- had long before told them she identified the wrong man under pressure from police.
* 1995: Rolando Cruz of DuPage County, Illinois, twice convicted and sentenced to death for the notorious 1983 murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico, is exonerated amid evidence of massive police and prosecutorial misconduct, phony confessions, withheld evidence, lying witnesses and a refusal to accept the confession of a convicted child rapist and killer who admitted to the Nicarico murder (and whose semen was found at the crime scene). Granted a third trial, Cruz was acquitted by a judge who harshly criticized the authorities in the case. Ultimately, three DuPage County prosecutors (one of whom had gone on to become a judge) and four former sheriffs' deputies were indicted for concealing evidence that could have exonerated Cruz and for cooking up other evidence in their quest for a conviction in a high-pressure and sensational case.
* 1996: High-school track star Offord Rollins IV is freed from prison for murder after his Kern County conviction is overturned because of a mixture of jury misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct and judicial error that ranged from improper sexual innuendo to the use of inadmissible evidence. After a retrial and hung jury, all charges were dropped.
* 1996: After fourteen years in prison, Scott and Brenda Kniffen and Debbie and Alvin McCuan were set free and exonerated -- the last gasp from another discredited Kern County molestation ring case from the 1980s. Their case had started a national frenzy of similar prosecutions -- the first of its kind in North America. Their convictions and collective thousand-year prison sentences were overturned because Kern County authorities had coerced children into accusing their own parents, then used the resulting unreliable testimony to win convictions.
* 1996: Denying an appeal from the Justice Department, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court finding of an "extraordinary pattern of misconduct" in the wrongful prosecution of Wang Zong Xiao. Wang was a witness brought to San Francisco from China to testify in an international heroin trafficking case in 1989, dubbed the "Goldfish Conspiracy." During the trial, Wang revealed that he had been brutally tortured by Chinese authorities until he implicated -- falsely -- the three Goldfish conspirators targeted for prosecution in the U.S. Once tortured into submission, he had been handed over to the U.S. Authorities. Federal prosecutors responded to this revelation by threatening to deport him back to China unless he testified as they wished against the three suspects, even though that meant Wang would face certain torture and execution upon his return home. When Wang still refused to testify falsely in the case and made his plight known to the court, an ensuing investigation revealed that the prosecution had kept secret a memorandum from Hong Kong authorities documenting their belief that Wang had been tortured -- which is why they refused to prosecute the case in Hong Kong. The judge on the case then enjoined the government from deporting Wang and later excoriated the Justice Department for "outrageous lies," prosecutorial misconduct and a "policy of willful ignorance" when it came to substantive allegations of torture by Chinese authorities.
* 1997: Former Black Panther Party leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt is released after spending twenty-five years in prison for a wrongful murder conviction that resulted from misconduct by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office,. Prosecutors had concealed the fact that the key witness in the case was a government informant who was given money and allowed to carry guns even though he was a convicted felon. Prosecutors then let their witness lie about his role as an informant while testifying against Pratt. Other evidence surfaced, through the testimony of a retired FBI agent, that the FBI knew Pratt was in another city at the time of the murder, but kept silent because they were "at war" with the Black Panthers. The Los Angeles County District Attorney decided not to retry Pratt.
* 1998: Harold Weimer is freed from yet another dubious molestation prosecution from the 1980s in Kern County, after a federal magistrate accuses Kern County authorities of a host of improprieties.
* 1998: After nearly a decade on death row, Shawn Hill of Los Angeles is freed from his death sentence and conviction because of the gross misconduct of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Rosalie Morton, a 74-year-old prosecutor with a storied history marked by repeated allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. The California Supreme Court took the unusual step of naming Morton in its published opinion, accused her of conducting a "pervasive campaign to mislead the jury" during Hill's trial in a drug robbery and murder case and of perpetrating "a mountain of deceit" in order to win. "Morton's actions, at times childish and unprofessional and at other times outrageous and unethical, betrayed her trust as a public prosecutor," the court wrote. "Her methods were deceptive and reprehensible." Morton was said to have misstated and mischaracterized evidence, told the jury information that was not in evidence, misstated the law and told "outright falsehoods." The court found that Morton's misconduct helped win Hill's conviction despite the testimony by two of three eyewitnesses who said he had not committed the murder. Morton had been cited for misconduct in three other criminal cases and a federal judge had recommended she be disbarred for unethical conduct. A 1977 opinion cited her for twenty transgressions during a robbery trial, including threatening to kick the defense lawyer in the ankle and hit him in the face. That conviction was upheld, however, and Morton was reported to have bragged about her performance in the case. Despite this history, Morton was not removed from prosecuting cases for her office until after the Hill decision was made public.
* 1998: Allegations of misconduct, improper leaks, and abuse of power are raised against Whitewater Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr during his epic confrontation with President Bill Clinton. The nation's best-known prosecutor and investigator of high-level wrongdoing, Starr himself comes under investigation for allegedly leaking secret grand jury information to the press, and for secret payments allegedly made to a witness who offered testimony against the president. Starr's tactics also came under scrutiny when he subpoenas presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal before the grand jury to question him about his comments to the press about two of Starr's assistants (the comments concerned past allegations of prosecutorial misconduct lodged against the assistants.) Starr asserted that Blumenthal -- and anyone else who publicly criticizes the special prosecutor in a fashion Starr considers inaccurate -- could be guilty of obstruction of justice, a notion many journalistic and legal observers condemn. Ken Starr, more than any public figure or criminal case has ever done in the past, has made the general public aware of the sweeping power prosecutors possess in contemporary America, with relatively little accountability or supervision -- how a prosecutor often answers to no authority but his own conscience and sense of duty, how he may remain unbowed even before the President of the United States, how the grand juries he convenes have become his tools rather than the checks and balances envisioned by the Founding Fathers. What is not as abundantly clear to the public is the fact that Starr's extraordinary powers and absence of accountability are in large part shared by every local, county, state and federal prosecutor in America. Added since publication of MEAN JUSTICE
Clarence Richard Dexter Missouri Conviction 1991 Released 1999 Dexter was accused in 1990 of murdering his wife of 22 years. Police overlooked significant evidence that the murder occurred in the course of a botched robbery and quickly decided that Dexter must have committed the crime. Dexter's trial lawyer was in poor health and under federal investigation for tax fraud and failed to challenge blood evidence presented at trial. The conviction was overturned in 1998 because of prosecutorial misconduct. The defense then had the blood evidence carefully examined and showed that the conclusions presented at trial were completely wrong. The state's blood expert admitted that his previous findings overstated the case against Dexter. On the eve of Dexter's retrial in June, 1999, the prosecution dismissed the charges and Dexter was freed.
Ronald Keith Williamson Oklahoma Conviction 1988 Released 1999 Ronald Williamson and Dennis Fritz were charged with the murder and rape of Deborah Sue Carter, which occurred in Ada, Oklahoma in 1982. They were arrested four years after the crime. Both were convicted and Williamson received the death penalty. In 1997, a federal appeals court overturned Williamson's conviction on the basis of ineffectiveness of counsel. The court noted that the lawyer had failed to investigate and present to the jury the fact that another man had confessed to the crime. The lawyer had been paid a total of $3,200 for the defense. Recently, DNA tests from the crime scene did not match either Williamson or Fritz, but did implicate Glen Gore, a former suspect in the case. All charges against the two defendants were dismissed on April 15, 1999 and they were released. Williamson suffers from bipolar depression and has been hospitalized for treatment. Jeffrey Modahl Kern County, CA Convicted 1986 Released May 1999 Yet another Kern County witch hunt case, Jefrrey Modahl served fifteen years in prison for child molestation before evidence surfaced showing that witnesses against him had been coerced, and that authorities in Kern County had medical reports showing the alleged victim in the case has not been sexually abused.
Anthony Porter Illinois Conviction 1983 Released 1999 Porter was released in February, 1999 on the motion of the State's Attorney after another man confessed on videotape to the double 1982 murder that sent Porter to death row. Charges were filed against the other man, who claimed he killed in self-defense. The case was broken by investigator Paul Ciolino working with Prof. David Protess and journalism students from Northwestern University. Their investigation also found that another witness had been pressured by police to testify against Porter. Porter came within 2 days of execution in 1998 and was only spared because the court wanted to look into his mental competency. Porter has an IQ of 51. His conviction was officially reversed on March 11, 1999.
Jerome Valenta Kern County, CA Conviction 1997 Released Feb. 2000 Valenta's conviction was overturned because of gross prosecutorial misconduct and a lack of evidence. He had been sentenced to seven years in prison for tape-recording conversations with law-enforcement officials and others as part of his advocacy for parolees facing parole revocation hearings. A long-time gadfly and critic of the Kern County District Attorney and Sheriff, Valenta's long sentence was unprecedented – the obscure wire-tapping statute used to prosecute him rarely leads to incarceration, and never more than a short stay in jail. But the authorities in Kern County were intent on charging Valenta. He was originally accused of attempting to intimidate a witnes a charge proven false when Valenta produced a tape recording of the supposedly threatening conversation. The tapes were then used against him. Penning his own appeal, Valenta was able to show that the conversatiosn he taped were not confidential as required by law and that Kern County prosecutors repeatedly committed misconduct in the courtroom by introducing improper evidence. He served three years in prison before winning his case.
George and Anthony Cox Kern County, CA Convicted 1986
Released Apil 2000 Two more Bakersfield Witch Hunt molestation cases were
overturned because prosecutors hid evidence of innocence, including medical
reports showing a victim in the case had never been molested.