(I am helping ACLU of Northern California and The Justice Project to get three very important bills signed. Right now there are three bills that the California legislature has passed and are ready for Governor Schwarzenegger to sign. But he might not sign them. These bills will help stop wrongful convictions. So we are trying to get some public awareness that these bills are waiting to be signed. These bills are SB 511, SB 609 and SB 756. This is another guest post toward that end. — Dave J.)
You Could Be Wrongfully Imprisoned If Governor Schwarzenegger Vetoes SB 511 and SB 609
By Harold Hall
Last month, I celebrated an untraditional anniversary. August 17, 2007 marked my third year of freedom from wrongful imprisonment. I spent nearly twenty years in prison for a crime I did not commit.
I think people want the assurance that something like this couldn’t happen to them. I wouldn’t wish the unique nightmare of wrongful conviction on my worst enemy, but I cannot provide this guarantee to anyone. That is because many of the methods and procedures that were used to secure my conviction are still allowable under California law.
In 1985, I was convicted of a double homicide. There wasn’t a smidgeon of forensic or biological evidence that could connect me to the two slayings. Still, police zeroed in on me. They brought me to an interrogation room, where I was handcuffed to a chair, denied food, water, and the use of a restroom. They told me they had evidence of my guilt, including fingerprints, blood and semen. The more I denied my involvement in these murders, the harder they pushed. Seventeen long hours later, I was mentally drained and told them the story they clearly wanted to hear.
By the end of this ordeal, I had technically “confessed” to the crime. It didn’t matter that the “confession” I provided contained many inaccuracies. It didn’t matter that the information that I provided to the police — thinking at the time that it would end the traumatic interrogation process – didn’t line up with many of the details of the crime. They had their man, although I hardly felt like one. I was only eighteen years old!
I was carted off to jail. I was scared for my life. Every day was a living hell. I was told when to use the phone, when to shower, when to recreate. I was under constant watch. Often I was pulled from my freezing cold cell in handcuffs, wearing only boxer shorts so that they could conduct cell searches. I was forced to watch, defenseless, as Corrections Officers went through my belongings, pouring out the contents of bottles, ripping up family photos, destroying objects that sustained me during those endless years. During lockdowns, which could last months, we were forced to take “bird baths” in the cell sink because we were not allowed out of our cells.
But I knew I was innocent and that I would be vindicated at trial. I knew that my lawyer would be able to explain why I provided a false confession.
Then I learned that the prosecution was planning to use the testimony of Cornelius Lee, a jailhouse informant, at trial. Lee and I had passed two handwritten notes while in jail. Lee took those notes, erased the questions and re-wrote them so that I appeared to incriminate myself. Once I learned the prosecution planned to use the testimony of a liar, a man who was hoping to get better treatment at my expense, I was crushed and demoralized.
Despite all of this, I never gave up hope, even when I was convicted and they sought the death penalty. At the penalty phase, I told the jury I was innocent; they sentenced me to life without parole.
I am free today, but prime years of my life were stolen from me.
There are two bills on Governor Schwarzenegger’s desk right now. Senate Bill 511 would require the electronic recording of police interrogation in cases involving homicides and other violent felonies. Senate Bill 609 would require that testimony given by jailhouse informants be corroborated. If these laws were in place when I was facing those horrific charges, I would have been spared nearly two decades of suffering. And without these laws, this could happen to other innocent people.
California is primed to do the right thing. It can ensure that juries are exposed to the most reliable and accurate evidence available. That is why I urge the Governor to sign these bills. That way when people ask, how could this happen? I can reassure my fellow innocent Californians that we are doing everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Please visit the ACLU of Northern California’s action alert and help end wrongful convictions. Also, please visit http://www.facesofwrongfulconviction.org/.
–Harold Hall lives in Los Angeles and works for the Los Angeles County Bar Association.