"It's Time For
Like the recent experiences in Illinois when the
percentages of wrongful convictions became so high that the governor suspended
all sentences of death penalty prisoners, California is now taking a
hard look at their wrongful convictions, searching for an answer.
The problem is that the judges and the prosecution are
in bed together seeking to convict as many people as they can. In some
cases the expression of being in bed together may be taken in the fullest
literal sense, as I have been informed in recent weeks, where the judge had a
love affair with the prosecutor in the same case.
Among our JAILers is one Bob Lokey, who was thrown in
prison for two life sentences without the possibility of parole, and who
has now been exonerated, and is taking on the system that
kept him confined within its prison bars for many years of his life.
In past years deputy district attorneys
in various offices of Los Angeles County were conducting "conviction"
contests. Points were accumulated among the competing district attorney offices by
acquiring the maximum number of collective "conviction" years. Bonuses were
given for death penalty convictions. Some of the judges in Los Angeles
County, most of whom arose to judgeship from the D.A.'s Office,
even got involved in the "conviction" contest, helping their fellow D.A.
comrades in their prior offices to win. As a result, sentences became longer and
longer, with justice being of less and less concern. These
contests were not unique to Los Angeles, as the Los Angeles
Times newspaper reported on other states involved, such as
The below article is not surprising at all. The problem
has become so pronounced that there is now a search for a "political
remedy." The fact is that J.A.I.L. is the only answer to this
Victims of the Justice System
A conference at UCLA
brings together the state's wrongly convicted, to share their experiences and
push for legal changes.
One by one they ascended the stage and
introduced themselves, each an embodiment of the legal system's fallibility in
"My name is Herman Atkins," a tall ponytailed man said. "The
state of California stole 12 years of my life for a rape and robbery I did not
commit in Riverside."
"Good morning, my name is Gloria Killian," a well-spoken
middle-aged woman said. "The state stole 22 years of my life for a robbery and
murder I did not commit in Sacramento."
"Good morning. My name is Ken
Marsh," a third speaker said. "The state took 21 years of my life for a murder I
did not commit in San Diego in 1983."
Seventeen people in all reiterated
the point to a packed ballroom at UCLA on Saturday: that although they now were
free, countless other innocent people are imprisoned in the state. Atkins,
Killian, Marsh and the others were wrongfully convicted and cleared years
They took part in the event, called "The Faces of Wrongful
Conviction," to dramatize the flaws in the state's criminal justice system. The
gathering was sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, Death Penalty
Focus, Amnesty International and others.
It came as a state
Senate-created commission is beginning to study and review the criminal justice
system in California, with a particular focus on the causes of wrongful
convictions and possible disparities in how death sentences are meted out.
Former California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, chairman of the commission; San
Francisco attorney Jon Streeter, the vice chairman; and Santa Clara University
law professor Gerald Uelmen, the commission's executive director, all were in
"We realize the system is imperfect," said Kent
Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a pro
law-enforcement organization in Sacramento, in a telephone interview. If the
commission comes up with needed reforms, that will be a public benefit, he
Scheidegger added, however, that he thought individuals sentenced
to long terms, rather than the death penalty, were "more vulnerable" to errors
in their cases, because death row inmates are entitled to more legal assistance
after a conviction.
After identifying themselves and the duration of
their time behind bars, each participant in Saturday's ceremony hung handcuffs
on a wall on the stage and then 10 more pairs on behalf of so-called exonerees
unable to attend the two-day conference.
As the half-hour event, the
first of its kind in California, concluded, the crowd gave the group of former
inmates a prolonged standing ovation.
The speakers were a varied group. A
few, such as Atkins, were cleared as a result of DNA evidence discovered after
their trials. But most — including Killian and Marsh — gained their freedom
after even longer legal battles in which there was no magic bullet like
There were whites, African Americans, Latinos, an Asian American and
a Native American. They had come from as far south as San Diego and as far north
as Yreka. All but Killian were male.
They had served as little as one
year — Bobby Herrera, for assault in Santa Clara County — and as much as 24
years — Thomas Goldstein, for murder in Long Beach. Two had been on death row.
Summaries of their cases indicate they were victims of such problems as
inaccurate eyewitness identifications, unreliable jailhouse informants, the
failure of police and prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence and faulty
More than 200 people have been wrongfully convicted in
California since 1989, said Jeffrey Chin, assistant director of the Innocence
Project at California Western School of Law in San Diego, one of the conference
That's one a month, said state Sen. Gloria Romero, (D-Los
Angeles), who opened the conference. Romero has been pushing for a death penalty
moratorium, but it is an uphill battle. "According to the latest Field Poll, 63%
of Californians support the death penalty," she said. "We have work to
Natasha Minsker of the ACLU said the purpose of the conference was
twofold: to draw attention to "wrongful convictions and to strategize solutions
for much-needed change."
Stanford University law professor Lawrence
Marshall, who played a key role in getting several innocent men off death row in
Illinois when he was teaching in that state in the 1990s, called Saturday's
event "truly momentous."
"It's time for California to be humbled by its
capacity for error" in its criminal justice system, he said.
In November 1998, Marshall organized
the first national conference of death row exonerees at Northwestern Law School.
That event is believed to have set the stage for a death penalty moratorium in
Illinois and major changes in the system there.
More broadly, it awakened
Americans to the realization that innocent people had been sent to death rows
across the country.
Although Saturday's conference included several death
penalty-related panels, the gathering at UCLA had a broader focus, particularly
since most of the California exonerees had been serving long sentences rather
than facing execution. California has more individuals — at least 28,000 —
serving life sentences than any other state.
Throughout the day, the
exonerees shared experiences among themselves and with the wider audience. Most
were upbeat, but their suffering was obvious.
Marsh, for instance,
developed such severe separation anxiety during his years away from his wife,
Brenda, that he cannot bear to be apart from her, even for a few moments to take
a group photograph with the others wrongfully convicted.
him in the photo and also onstage.
He introduced her by saying she had
been in her own prison for the 21 years he was behind bars.
losing many years of their lives, several of the exonerees said in interviews
that they were not bitter. "Bitterness and anger will destroy you," said
Killian, who was a law student when a man involved in a Sacramento murder made
up a story that she had masterminded the killing. Now 59, Killian has formed a
nonprofit organization, Action Committee for Women in Prison, based in
She lives with Joyce Ride, the mother of former astronaut Sally
Ride, who spent thousands of dollars of her own money to hire an investigator
and an appellate lawyer to look into Killian's case after visiting her in prison
and becoming convinced of her innocence.
"My focus," Killian said, "is on
the women I left behind and the changes I can effect to ensure that this does
not happen to other people."