May 28, 2010

Wrongful Convictions in California are Plentiful

More than 200 men and women have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes in California, six of whom were sentenced to death. Here are some of their stories.

Herman Atkins
County: Riverside
Convicted of: Forcible Rape, Forcible Oral Copulation, and Robbery
Year of Conviction: 1988
Sentence: 45 years
Year Released: 2000
Years Served: 11.5 years
Wrongful Conviction Factors: Mistaken eyewitness identification

Herman Atkins, a tall and poised man, is a blissful newlywed and pursuing a masters and doctoral degree in Psychology from California State University, Fresno. The son of a California Highway Patrol Officer, Herman has traveled the country and starred in an acclaimed documentary. By looking at him, you would never know that twelve years of Herman's life was stolen by the State of California. His adolescence cheated by the error of the criminal justice system, and only to be resolved over a decade later.

In 1986, Herman was a recent high school graduate, preparing to follow his admired father's footstep and join the military. A twisted set of events, however, prevented him from even experiencing his twenties.

Herman, now 40, was accused of raping a woman during a 1986 robbery in a Lake Elsinore shoe store. In 1988, the jury convicted him to forty-five years in prison. DNA testing was not available during his trial; however, in 1993, the Innocence project requested that the evidence be tested. The results were not surprising - the source of semen on the victim's sweater eliminated Herman as the source. The FBI lab confirmed these results.

Herman, the 70th person in North America freed from prison as a result of DNA testing, was release on February 18th, 2000, after serving almost 12 years for a crime he did not commit. The rapist was never caught.

"Only God and I knew my innocence," Herman tearfully stated on the day of his release. "Today, God, I, the Riverside District Attorney and the people of California and the United States know that I am an innocent man."

Herman currently lives in Fresno with his wife Machara. They have set up a small foundation, LIFE, to assist other recent exonerees with the basic necessities once they are released from prison. In addition to time, Herman laments on the opportunities robbed from him during those twelve years, "It robbed me of a relationship with my father, a relationship with my grandmother. It robbed me of any opportunity in life."

Kevin Baruxes
County: San Diego
Convicted of: Rape
Year of Conviction: 1996
Sentence: 15 years to life
Year Released: 2003
Years Served: 7.5 years
Wrongful Conviction Factors: False testimony by witness

Cortni Mahaffy came to the police and said three men, one of whom had a skinhead tattoo, had raped her. She said that it had happened in the trash enclosure outside her apartment building, that a knife had been pulled and that the attacker had a chain wallet.

Everything that she said pointed to 18 year-old Kevin Baruxes, a local skinhead who lived at home and had frequent run-ins with the police. He had the tattoo she had described and when he was picked up, he had a knife and a chain wallet in his pockets. He had spoken to her a few times while visiting friends who lived in the building. Mahaffy testified that Kevin had shared his views about race. "He told me that he liked me as a person, but when the race war came, he would have to kill me" because, as a Sicilian, she was not "pure white."

It took police only a week to pick up Baruxes. Mahaffy identified him and his brother as her attackers (she later dropped the identification of his brother). Despite the fact that his family swore he had been at home and there was no physical evidence of the crime, Baruxes was convicted based on her convincing testimony and eyewitness identification. Further, because of the racist element of the crime, he was given an aggravated sentence for committing a hate crime. "You gotta be kidding," Kevin said. "This is like the kind of stuff I see on TV where someone gets blamed for a crime that they haven't even done."

Years later, an email sent by Mahaffy's ex-fiancee, Mike Chaney, started the momentum that led to Baruxes release. He wrote that he believed she had falsely accused Baruxes. Several more witnesses came forward testifying that she was a compulsive liar and in the end, she recanted her testimony against him. Baruxes was released in 2003 after spending more than seven years in prison for a crime that he not only did not commit, but one that seems highly plausible to never have even occurred.

Kevin Baruxes is now readjusting to life on the outside. He carries the judge's order of his exoneration in his back pocket. He is 26 years old and he bears two scars from a prison knife attack that almost killed him. Recently, Baruxes was awarded $265,000 ($100/day) for wrongful imprisonment.

http://www.deathpenalty.org/

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