innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

D.A. Won't Retry Man

This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on April 7, 2007:

D.A. won't retry man held 22 years

'I just want to move forward,' says Timothy Atkins. A judge had thrown out his conviction in a Venice slaying.

By Joe Mozingo
Times Staff Writer

Upon learning that he was truly a free man, Timothy Atkins bore the stoic attitude that helped him survive the 22 years he spent in prison before a judge threw out his murder conviction this year.

Prosecutors said Friday they would not retry his case, and Atkins walked into the gray morning, expressing neither glee at his exoneration nor anger at the lost years.

"I just want to move forward, there's nothing to look back for," said Atkins, 39.

Atkins, who has maintained his innocence since he was convicted in 1987 of second-degree murder and two counts of robbery, said he was "going to go home, kick back and play some PlayStation."

Prosecutors insist he was guilty of taking part in a carjacking attempt on New Year's Day 1985, in which florist Vincente Gonzales was shot to death in Venice. But when Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan threw out the conviction in February after the key witness against Atkins said she lied, prosecutors didn't have enough evidence to go forward.

"We believe the right person was tried and convicted," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Collins.

Atkins' attorney, Justin Brooks, called the allegation outrageous and said prosecutors' inability to admit what went wrong at Atkins' trial will ensure innocent people will continue to be put away.

"When a plane crashes, we do an investigation of why the plane crashed," he said. "We need to do that with the justice system…. It does no good for anyone if, after these cases, we just say, 'Oh, well, let's move on.' "

Atkins was a 17-year-old gang member in Venice when Gonzales was killed. He and his friend, Ricky Evans, were arrested after an acquaintance, Denise Powell, told police that Atkins bragged about the killing one night when the three were driving around looking for crack cocaine. Atkins, she told them, said he had "offed" the man.

Evans was killed in jail before he could go to trial. Atkins barely survived the same assault.

Powell could not be located for his trial, but her preliminary hearing testimony, in which Atkins' attorney barely cross-examined her, was read to the jury.

After his conviction, Atkins said he heard that Powell had approached his family and admitted that she lied about him and was sorry.

But he didn't have the money for a lawyer to pursue it and Powell — frequently homeless and in and out of jail — was hard to find.

In 2001, he sent a letter laying out his case to the California Innocence Project at California Western Law School in San Diego. The pro bono clinic took up his cause, but could not locate Powell until February 2005 — at a rehab clinic in El Monte.

Law student Wendy Koen got a video declaration and signed statement from Powell, and at a hearing Powell testified that she had lied under pressure from police.

The district attorney argued that the recantation was dubious and that corroborating evidence supported her original testimony.

On Feb. 9, Tynan ruled that Powell's turnabout was credible and fatally undermined the prosecution's case. He noted that the victim's wife, who was splattered by her husband's blood during the shooting, caught only a one-second glimpse of a suspect whom she described as 5 feet 4 — whereas Atkins is 6 feet tall. He found her subsequent identification of Atkins in a photo lineup "highly questionable, if not totally unreliable."

Tynan ordered Atkins released and gave the district attorney 60 days to decide whether to retry the case or drop the charges.

The district attorney gave no indication of his intention until Friday's deadline.

"Based on the state of the evidence in 2007 and the trial court's ruling on the habeas petition, we are no longer able to proceed on this matter," Collins said.

Tynan dismissed the case.

Atkins hugged his attorneys and told the judge he planned to take a job doing gang intervention in Venice; he said he dropped out of his gang in 1992. "Mr. Atkins, I wish you the best of luck," Tynan said.

Atkins didn't expect an apology, but he was firm about his innocence."The system was wrong. I did [more than two decades] for it."*

Monday, April 09, 2007

Dallas judge urges another DNA exoneration

This article appeared in the New York Times on April 9, 2007:

Judge Urges 13th Dallas DNA Exoneration

By The Associated Press
Filed at 2:18 p.m. ET

DALLAS (AP) -- James Curtis Giles spent 10 years in prison for a gang rape he has long said he did not commit. On Monday, more than a decade after his release, a prosecutor acknowledged Giles' arrest had been a case of mistaken identity, and a judge recommended he be exonerated.
If the appeals court formally approves State District Judge Robert Francis' recommendation as expected, Giles, now 53, will become the 13th Dallas County man to be exonerated since 2001 with the help of DNA evidence.

''I hope we continue to do the right thing in this situation,'' Giles told the judge Monday. ''Don't wait this long to make it right.''

About two dozen relatives packed into the courtroom and broke into applause after Giles spoke.
Giles, who left with courtroom with a smile, said he doesn't hold a grudge against the state. The judge complimented him on his positive attitude about his ordeal.

''This is not what I want to see as a judge,'' Francis said, ''but I'm glad we can rectify as much as we can.''

The Dallas County District Attorney's office and Giles' Innocence Project lawyer, Vanessa Potkin, both told the court they had evidence showing Giles was innocent of the 1982 gang rape of a Dallas woman.

It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, said Assistant Dallas County District Attorney Lisa Smith.

A man who pleaded guilty to the gang rape, Stanley Bryant, implicated two other men in the crime: a James Giles and a Michael Brown. DNA evidence linked Brown and Bryant to the crime, Smith and Potkin said. Brown was never tried and died in prison after being convicted of another gang rape.

Police eventually arrested James Curtis Giles, who lived 25 miles away and did not match the description of the attacker given by the rape victim, Potkin said. Giles was about 10 years older and had gold teeth.

Investigators ignored another man with a similar name: James Earl Giles. That Giles lived across the street from the victim and had previously been arrested with Brown on other charges, the attorneys said. He died in prison in 2000 while serving time for robbery and assault.

The victim recently acknowledged some doubt as to whether James Curtis Giles was among the rapists. One witness also recently identified the other man, James Earl Giles, in a photo lineup, Smith said.

The DNA evidence that linked Brown to the crime was one factor that helped convince the district attorney's office to investigate James Curtis Giles' claim of innocence, especially because of Brown's ''overwhelming connection'' to the other James Giles, Potkin said.

Giles has had to register as a sex offender since his release. He is married and lives in Lufkin with his wife, working for an accounting business, Potkin said.

''It's been humiliating every day, knowing that a sex offender was the scum of the earth,'' Giles said after the hearing Monday.

Giles, who is black, would be the 13th Dallas County man since 2001 exonerated by DNA evidence, the most of any county in the nation. It would be the third exoneration since District Attorney Craig Watkins took office on Jan. 1 pledging to free anyone wrongfully convicted.

Watkins, the state's first black district attorney, took over an office with a history of racial discrimination, including a staff manual for prosecutors that described how to keep minorities off juries.

Giles is scheduled to appear Tuesday at the state Capitol in Austin with Barry Scheck, the co-director of the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions. They are scheduled to speak at Senate hearings regarding three reform bills designed to reduce wrongful convictions in Texas, said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the Innocence Project.

Texas leads the nation with 27 DNA exonerations, one more than Illinois, according to Innocence Project figures. There have been 198 exonerations nationwide.