In­mate’s fate in the bal­ance

Los Angeles Times - - The Na­tion -

The case, le­gal ex­perts say, un­der­scores the fragility of eye­wit­ness iden­ti­fi­ca­tions. Stud­ies have shown that faulty iden­ti­fi­ca­tions are the big­gest fac­tor in wrong­ful con­vic­tions. But in­no­cence claims in­volv­ing re­canted tes­ti­mony are rarely suc­cess­ful be­cause courts look skep­ti­cally at wit­nesses, such as Fin­ley, who years later say they lied or made a mis­take at trial.

“As a judge, it’s hard to get in trou­ble for up­hold­ing a jury ver­dict,” said Jean Rosen­bluth, a pro­fes­sor at USC’s School of Law and a for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor. “But . . . you can get flak for let­ting a con­victed mur­derer out of jail.”

Green has al­ways main­tained his in­no­cence. He has passed a poly­graph test ad­min­is­tered at the be­hest of his at­tor­ney and won the sup­port of the jury fore­woman who con­victed him. Even the vic­tim’s mother says she has al­ways had doubts about Green’s guilt.

But as he awaits a rul­ing from his prison cell, Green faces a harsh re­al­ity: His fate de­pends on the cred­i­bil­ity of the man who helped put him there 23 years ago.

Wil­lie Fin­ley’s crim­i­nal ways be­gan when he was a young­ster. He broke into cars, com­mit­ted rob­beries and fre­quently landed in ju­ve­nile lock­ups.

In 1965, at age 21, Fin­ley and two friends robbed the Star Room bar in South Los An­ge­les. Fin­ley beat the bar­tender with his chrome .22-cal­iber hand­gun and de­manded cash from the reg­is­ter.

When a 53-year-old pa­tron made a dash for the door, one of Fin­ley’s co­horts chased him into the park­ing lot and fa­tally shot him. Fin­ley and the others were con­victed of mur­der and sen­tenced to life in prison. Twelve years later, Fin­ley was re­leased on pa­role.

Within a year, ac­cord­ing to court records, he was vis­it­ing an ac­quain­tance when a fight broke out in the man’s apart­ment and Fin­ley shot the man in the stom­ach. For that, Fin­ley served 21⁄ more years be­hind bars.

He was re­leased from prison in 1982 and started sell­ing crack out of a house his mother owned in Jef­fer­son Park. He hired Denise “Dee Dee” Walker, an at­trac­tive 25-year-old sin­gle mother, to cook the crack.

On the evening of Aug. 9, 1983, Walker was mak­ing crack while Fin­ley was out­side on the side­walk. A man came up, pis­tol-whipped Fin­ley and forced him in­side the house, ac­cord­ing to court records.

The gun­man or­dered Walker to un­lock the back door. A sec­ond man car­ry­ing a sawed-off shot­gun walked in and grabbed her by the hair.

“Oh, no, Wil­lie!” Walker screamed.

The sec­ond in­truder then hit Fin­ley on the head with the shot­gun and took a set of keys from him. He went to the bed­room where Fin­ley kept his cash and drugs.

When he re­turned to the kitchen mo­ments later, he handed the shot­gun to his ac­com­plice and left. The ac­com­plice turned his at­ten­tion to Walker, who lay scream­ing next to Fin­ley.

“You tried to dog me, didn’t you?” he yelled as he pulled shot­gun shells from a pocket and loaded the weapon. “You’re the only one that knows me.” He pointed the shot­gun at her chest and fired, then es­caped out the back door.

As Walker lay dy­ing, Fin­ley scur­ried around the house col­lect­ing drugs and other tools of his trade that the gun­men had missed. He dumped them in an al­ley be- LOCKED UP: Wil­lie Green has spent 23 years in prison for a killing he says he didn’t com­mit. He said the star wit­ness’ re­can­ta­tion re­newed his faith that the jus­tice sys­tem would set him free. “That’s what put me here. That’s what’s go­ing to get me out.”

hind his home and fled.

Homi­cide de­tec­tives had no fin­ger­prints or foren­sic ev­i­dence to point to a sus­pect.

Their strong­est clue came from Pa­tri­cia Austin, a neigh­bor who had been in Fin­ley’s house at the time of the killing and heard Walker’s cry of “Wil­lie!” They didn’t think Walker had been re­fer­ring to Fin­ley; most friends knew him by his nick­name, Doug.

De­tec­tives caught up with Fin­ley a month later sell­ing drugs from a friend’s apart­ment. Fin­ley was ar­rested and taken to jail, where po­lice asked him about the slay­ing and had him look at mug shots. Fin­ley, how­ever, did not iden­tify any­one.

The trail ap­peared cold un­til Walker’s mother told in­ves­ti­ga­tors that her daugh­ter had been the vic­tim of an as­sault a year ear­lier. Two men had been ar­rested in that case. One was named Wil­lie.

The case file shows that Wil­lie Green had briefly lived at Walker’s apart­ment on La Brea Av­enue with his cousin, who dated Walker. She threw the two men out af­ter notic­ing nee­dle marks on her boyfriend’s arm.

Green’s cousin re­turned to the apart­ment the same night bran­dish­ing a butcher knife, and he chased Walker, threat­en­ing to kill her.

Green dashed in, grabbed a tele­vi­sion and fled. Both men pleaded guilty to grand theft. Green was re­leased and given pro­ba­tion.

As de­tec­tives reviewed that case for a link to Walker’s slay­ing, they learned that Green’s cousin was in prison the night of the shoot­ing. But Green had no such al­ibi.

De­tec­tives in­ter­viewed Fin­ley in jail again, show­ing him six pho­to­graphs of pos­si­ble sus­pects, in­clud­ing Green’s. This time, they said, Fin­ley ten­ta­tively iden­ti­fied Green as the man who had come in through his back door. He also ten­ta­tively iden­ti­fied another man po­lice thought might have been the shooter.

At an in-per­son lineup, Fin­ley pointed to an in­no­cent stand-in as the shooter. But he picked out Green as the sec­ond in­truder, who un­der Cal­i­for­nia law could also be charged with Walker’s mur­der.

can’t for­get a face like that,” Fin­ley told jurors at Green’s mur­der trial. The pros­e­cu­tor told jurors that “Mr. Fin­ley may not be WIT­NESS: Wil­lie Fin­ley now says a de­tec­tive coached him to iden­tify Green. your cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean that he’s in­ca­pable of telling the truth.”

Green’s at­tor­ney, David S. Wesley, said Fin­ley had proved him­self an un­re­li­able wit­ness. For ex­am­ple, Fin­ley tes­ti­fied that he still be­lieved the in­no­cent man he picked at the lineup was the ac­tual shooter.

“You know, it is a ter­ri­ble thing to con­vict a man of a crime he didn’t com­mit,” Wesley said. “And I am not sure once the wrong is done that it is ever righted.”

Af­ter a day of de­lib­er­a­tions, the jurors con­victed Green. All of them, ac­cord­ing to the jury fore­woman, be­lieved Fin­ley.

Shortly af­ter the trial, Fin­ley was linked to a string of armed rob­beries and sent back to prison. In 1988, at 44, he re­turned home weary of prison life. He quit us­ing co­caine and be­gan work­ing as a main­te­nance man at a midWil­shire-area restau­rant.

In 1993, Fin­ley con­fided to his brother that the pis­tol­whip­ping he got be­fore the killing left his face so swollen that he could not prop­erly see the as­sailant he later iden­ti­fied as Green. He had picked out Green, he said, with the help of de­tec­tives.

His brother, a for­mer crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tor for the U.S. Army and now vice pres­i­dent of a se­cu­rity firm, encouraged him to tell au­thor­i­ties, but Fin­ley re­fused.

The mat­ter lay dor­mant for years un­til a lawyer for Green knocked on the door.

At first, Fin­ley stuck to the ver­sion he gave at the trial. But later, at the urg­ing of his brother, Fin­ley changed his story.

Since then, Fin­ley has tes­ti­fied and signed sworn dec­la­ra­tions back­ing away from his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Green. He now says he never got a good look at the as­sailant who en­tered through his back door. He says he was high on co­caine at the time of the as­sault and also high when he tes­ti­fied at Green’s trial.

In one of his most damn­ing al­le­ga­tions, he said the lead de­tec­tive on the case pointed to Green’s pho­to­graph dur­ing the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in an at­tempt to get him to pick Green out — and Fin­ley went along with it. m not an­gry with Wil­lie Fin­ley,” Green said, re­flect­ing on his time be­hind bars. “I want to hate him real, real bad, but I can’t do it. . . . I refuse to al­low what hap­pened to me to eat me up with ha­tred.”

In a jail­house in­ter­view, Green said he spent the night of the killing stranded with a friend in the San Fer­nando Val­ley with­out money for a ride home. One of his at­tor­neys said the friend was con­tacted in prison but could not recall the spe­cific evening and would not co­op­er­ate.

Green said he would have given up the name of the shooter to win a re­duc­tion in his sen­tence had he been in­volved in the killing. Au­thor­i­ties have never iden­ti­fied the man who pulled the trig­ger.

In prison, Green has mar­ried, earned an as­so­ci­ates de­gree and teaches math to fel­low in­mates. “Num­bers don’t lie,” he said.

At times, he said, he felt hope­less as ap­peal af­ter ap­peal was de­nied. But he said Fin­ley’s re­can­ta­tion had re­newed his faith that the jus­tice sys­tem would set him free.

“That’s what put me here,” he said. “That’s what’s go­ing to get me out.”

In Novem­ber, three of the orig­i­nal wit­nesses in Green’s trial re­turned to the county’s main crim­i­nal court­house in down­town Los An­ge­les.

Fin­ley’s lat­est story was bol­stered by tes­ti­mony from Austin, the neigh­bor, who said she was shown pho­to­graphs of pos­si­ble sus­pects by the lead Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment de­tec­tive, John Bunch, weeks af­ter the mur­der.

Bunch, she said, pointed to a photo of Green and told her of the as­sault on Walker in­volv­ing Green and his cousin. Austin said she was un­able to iden­tify a sus­pect.

Green’s at­tor­neys have crit­i­cized other as­pects of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, com­plain­ing that de­tec­tives failed to fully re­search other sus­pects or Walker’s ro­mance with a noto- ri­ous drug king­pin.

Bunch, who left the LAPD in 1994 and now works as an in­ves­ti­ga­tor for the Ven­tura County district at­tor­ney’s of­fice, de­nied ever in­flu­enc­ing an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. He tes­ti­fied in the hear­ing that Fin­ley se­lected Green’s photo on his own and that Fin­ley told Bunch he was 80% cer­tain Green was the sec­ond in­truder.

But the star wit­ness was once again Fin­ley, who ex­plained why he was com­ing for­ward af­ter so many years.

“I started think­ing about all the years I did in the pen­i­ten­tiary,” he said. “And then I started think­ing about is there a pos­si­ble chance that it could have been a mis­take.”

Just as Green’s at­tor­ney in 1984 had tried to ex­pose holes in Fin­ley’s story, now it was the pros­e­cu­tor’s turn.

“Mr. Fin­ley,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Hy­man Sis­man, who had in­ter­viewed Fin­ley at his house a few months ear­lier, “you and I have met be­fore, isn’t that right?”

“I don’t think so,” Fin­ley re­sponded.

At times, Fin­ley for­got or seemed con­fused about dates and events, in­clud­ing when the judge asked whether he had been high when he picked Green from a photo lineup. Fin­ley ul­ti­mately said he had been. The pros­e­cu­tor noted, how­ever, that Fin­ley had been in jail for two weeks at the time of the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Sis­man ar­gued that Fin­ley had re­canted be­cause he had been pushed by his brother.

“With all due re­spect, Mr. Wil­lie Fin­ley is not the sharpest knife in the drawer,” Sis­man told the judge. “He’s so self-con­tra­dic­tory and so se­lec­tive in his mem­ory that quite frankly . . . I don’t see how this court can have any be­lief in any­thing he says.”

Sit­ting in the same crafts­man-style home where Walker was killed, Fin­ley said he had noth­ing to gain from com­ing for­ward in Green’s cur­rent case and de­scribed it as “just a waste of my time.”

He com­plained of chronic short-term mem­ory prob­lems but ac­cu­rately re­counted de­tails of the killing that are con­firmed by po­lice re­ports. He re­peated his ac­count that po­lice helped him iden­tify Green but ad­mit­ted that de­tails of the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion re­mained hazy.

Tes­ti­fy­ing in 1984 seemed like the right thing to do, he said, be­cause po­lice con­vinced him Green was guilty. He said he doesn’t know whether Green is in­no­cent or not.

As for whether Green will be re­leased, Fin­ley said he had done what is right but felt no guilt about the past.

“I have a con­science,” Fin­ley said, “but I wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep if the man didn’t ever get out.”

jack.leonard@la­times.com

Michael Robin­son Chavez Los An­ge­les Times

Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions

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