Los Angeles Times
What do we owe an innocent man incarcerated for 38 years?
The conviction and delayed exoneration of Maurice Hastings is a stain on our justice system.
ALos Angeles Superior Court judge on Wednesday found Maurice Hastings factually innocent of a crime that put him in prison for 38 years. Factual innocence is a high bar and it’s rare for courts to grant it. It means the evidence proves conclusively that he did not commit the crime. For Hastings, the ruling is an exoneration with exclamation points. For the Los Angeles County criminal justice system, it is a reminder of an enduring stain that may never be washed off.
That’s because the district attorney’s office repeatedly failed Hastings — and the sexual assault and murder victim, Roberta Wydermyer. Prosecutors twice sought to execute Hastings, but the first trial ended in a mistrial and the second with a conviction and sentence of life without parole. Prosecutors had DNA evidence that could have cleared him, but they denied it to him when he first tried to get it tested 23 years ago. Later, they said they couldn’t find it.
Only recently was the evidence — semen left in Wydermyer’s body — tested and found not to match Hastings. It did match Kenneth Packnett, who later was convicted of crimes similar to the one prosecutors pinned on Hastings. Packnett has since died.
Hastings, 30 at the time of the conviction, was released from prison in October at 69.
What kind of apology does a society that prides itself on having the world’s most advanced system of justice make to a person wrongly denied freedom for nearly four decades?
Factual innocence findings may be rare, but to our shame, faulty convictions are not.
On Tuesday the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a settlement of $1.2 million for Arturo Aceves Jimenez, who was imprisoned for 25 years on what he said in a lawsuit was a wrongful conviction. Last year, a judge in Louisiana freed Sullivan Walter 36 years after he was wrongfully convicted as a teenager.
Two weeks ago, in Missouri, Lamar Johnson was freed after nearly 28 years in prison when his conviction was finally overturned in court. Several years earlier, the current St. Louis chief prosecutor found that a key eyewitness had recanted, previous prosecutors paid the witness’ housing and expenses without disclosing it — and two other people confessed to the crime.
Release of Johnson took years and the intervention of Missouri lawmakers, because the criminal justice system was more interested in procedure and politics than wrongful imprisonment. Circuit Atty. Kim Gardner, a Democrat and a “progressive prosecutor,” was elected after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in the suburb of Ferguson. A conservative judge appointed the Republican state attorney general to intervene in her request for a new trial. Not until state legislators changed the law could Gardner move forward and get the conviction vacated.
How do we compensate a person for being so misused by our justice system? How do we compare the debt for wrongful imprisonment to, say, the $1.2 million the county approved to settle the Aceves Jimenez case, or the nearly $29 million settlement with Kobe Bryant’s survivors for the horrendous but still lesser harm of county personnel circulating photos of the remains of the basketball legend and other victims in the helicopter crash?
Wrongful convictions affect Americans of all races and backgrounds, but people of color are far more likely to later win exoneration, according to a review by the National Registry of Exonerations, which suggests that they were far more likely to be wrongfully convicted in the first place.
Reform prosecutors around the nation have created conviction integrity units to discover and correct injustices perpetrated — usually unknowingly — by their predecessors. Most of the heavy lifting is done by outside organizations such as the Los Angeles Innocence Project, which championed Hastings’ case and helped put it before Dist. Atty. George Gascón.
Reexaminations of questionable convictions ought to be widely embraced by every player in the criminal justice system as the ultimate guarantor of the system’s legitimacy. But instead, such efforts are politically perilous. For example, the Missouri attorney general is attempting to remove Gardner, supposedly for neglecting her job. Gascón faces the wrath of his own deputies, many of whom supported two recall attempts against him.
It is not for nothing that some critics refer to it as the “criminal legal system.” The word “justice” must be earned, and too often, our system falls short.