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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Robbery Charges Dropped in Rap Sheet Mixup

This article appeared in the Mercury News on October 27, 2006:

Robbery charges dropped in rap sheet mixup case
Salinas Widower Victim of Clerical Error


By Fredric N. Tulsky
Mercury News

Larry Lashere Adams, a Salinas widower who became a robbery suspect because of a bizarre error in state records, was cleared of the crime Friday when charges were dropped in Santa Clara Superior Court.

Adams became a suspect in a 2005 home invasion largely because state records showed he had committed a similar crime in Contra Costa County 15 years earlier. But Adams had done no such thing. Instead, a man named James Adams was convicted of the crime and officials have been unable to explain how that conviction wound up on Larry Adams' rap sheet.

Defense attorney Allen H. Schwartz said the error was one of a series of ``uncanny coincidences,'' which ended in Adams' arrest seven months ago after police surrounded his car while he was on a lunch break from his job as a supervisor at Mervyn's.

``He was an unfortunate victim of circumstances,'' said Schwartz, after Judge Jerome Nadler Friday granted a prosecution motion to dismiss the case based on insufficient evidence during a hearing that lasted less than a minute. ``But today justice was served,'' Schwartz said, crediting deputy district attorney Victor Chen for moving to dismiss the charges.

Chen said simply, ``The continuing police investigation led to the conclusion that the evidence was insufficient.''

Adams was not in court Friday and could not be reached for comment. But Walter Wilson, a Silicon Valley NAACP official who is Adams' uncle, said the real lesson is that ``the system failed again.''

Wilson said officials were notified about the mistaken rap sheet well before his nephew was charged with robbery. ``But instead they went ahead and charged him and locked him up,'' Wilson said. ``It's just not right.''

The case unfolded amid increased attention to the potential for wrongful convictions. The Mercury News series ``Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice'' reported that questionable conduct repeatedly mars Santa Clara County jury trials and that such conduct increases the small but significant potential for wrongful conviction.

In Adams' case, the clerical error was compounded by a suspect eyewitness identification that occurred more than a year after the robbery. Adams spent three weeks in jail on charges and initially faced a life sentence. Because authorities saw a prior robbery on Adams' record, as well as a domestic violence conviction, he was originally charged with under the state's strict ``Three Strikes, You're Out'' law.

Police had been seeking the ringleader of a group of robbers who burst into a San Jose home not far from Monterey Road and Capitol Expressway shortly after midnight Jan. 23, 2005. A group of teenagers were present; some had been drinking, one had a bag of marijuana, according to police reports. The intruders separated two brothers who lived in the house and asked each where the valuables were hidden.

Police soon arrested two men in the crime. By monitoring visitors to the jail, they later came up with Adams' name -- his former girl friend was the mother of one of the men charged and she listed a cell phone registered to Adams on jail records. When police discovered that Adams met the general description -- a large black man 39 years old -- and that he had a prior robbery conviction, officers showed the brothers a photographic lineup.

Because identification is subject to the frailties of human memory, Santa Clara County police agencies have enacted safeguards to reduce the chances of wrongful identifications -- safeguards that a state commission believes agencies throughout the state should adopt. Those safeguards include showing photographs to victims sequentially, rather than in a group and having the lineup administered by an officer who does not know the suspect's identity.

In their reports, detectives Ronnie Lopez and Ramon Avalos noted that they followed county protocols. But they described administering the lineups themselves instead of relying on an officer who did not know the identity of their suspect.

It took weeks before Adams was released from custody in April after his bail was lowered to $75,000.

Court records show that he was convicted of domestic violence after a 1991 incident in which his girlfriend withheld his car keys to prevent him from driving while drunk. He also has been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol in the past.

Adams has said the rap sheet error came up when he was arrested for domestic violence and again during a recent custody dispute with his wife, who has since died.

Adams' aunt, Brenda Wilson, works in the Santa Clara County public defender's office, and has helped him obtain documents to show he did not commit a robbery in Contra Costa. She again notified officials of the error after his arrest in March.

The Wilsons noted that the family had to spend thousands of dollars to win Adams' release on bail. Furthermore, ``If it hadn't been for where I work, he would have lost his job and his kids would have been taken away,'' said Brenda Wilson. ``This just should not have happened.''

Contact Fredric N. Tulsky at rtulsky@mercurynews.com.

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