Thursday, 5 April 2007
My friend, Herman Atkins, freed from a California prison after serving 12 years
Please Distribute Widely to Folks in LA Area:
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
My friend, Herman Atkins, freed from a California prison after serving 12 years when DNA evidence proved he was innocent of rape and robbery, needs your help during his civil trial this month.
Starting Tuesday April 10, Herman is asking for you to come and sit-in on the proceedings in Downtown Los Angeles to help him fill the courtroom with supporters of justice. (see details below)
He is requesting that you please e-mail everyone you know that is ‘interested in civil rights demanding justice for rape survivors and those convicted of sexual assault crimes they did not commit.’
Renowned criminal/civil-rights attorney Peter Neufeld, best known as a cofounder, with Barry Scheck, of the Innocence Project, is representing Herman. With Scheck and Jim Dwyer, Neufeld co-authored Actual Innocence.
In 2000, Herman worked together with rape survivors representing the Rainbow Sisters Project to help pass two laws regarding DNA evidence in California. The first law was inspired by his case makes it easier for inmates to obtain DNA tests post-conviction and the second extends the statute-of-limitations on rape where DNA testing can point to a suspect.
Join us by attending Herman’s civil trial, to help bring the public’s attention to the misconduct by police and prosecutors that continues to send innocent people to prison. Show the court, the police, and Riverside County (where he was convicted) that the people are watching!
Best, Karen Pomer
Co-Founder, Rainbow Sisters Project
For Survivors of Sexual Assault
Herman Atkins' Civil Trial
WHEN: Tuesday, April 10 at 1 p.m., Wednesday, April 11, Tuesday – Friday, April 17-20, and Tuesday- Thursday, April 24-26, from
9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
WHERE: US District Court
312 N. Spring St, Room 3, (courtroom of Judge Pregerson)
Downtown Los Angeles, CA 90012
ABOUT HERMAN ATKINS: After 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Herman Atkins was proven factually innocent by post conviction DNA testing in February of 2000. He had been sentenced to 45 years and 8 months for the rape, oral copulation, and robbery of a white woman in 1988 in Riverside. He never received compensation for more than a decade of his life taken from him.
Now, Herman’s 7 year, uphill battle to be compensated by Riverside County comes to head. The case is now scheduled for trial in Los Angeles starting April 10th.
Herman and his attorneys, Peter Neufeld and Deborah Cornwall from Cochran Neufeld & Scheck law firm, claim that Herman’s civil rights was seriously violated by Dan Miller, then a Riverside detective who lied, manufactured evidence, coerced witnesses, fabricated a witness testimony, and produced fraudulent photo line ups in order to obtain a conviction. Dan Miller now works for the FBI “terrorism unit.”
Rather than compensate Herman, Riverside County has spent millions of dollar fighting this case. Riverside County has done nothing to correct the mistakes that happened in Herman’s case or to prevent wrongful convictions. Nor has Riverside, the FBI or Department of Justice investigated the conduct of Dan Miller who may still be sending innocent people to prison.
While fighting for compensation, Herman has managed to obtain two degrees in the field of psychology. He is currently working towards his master’s degree in Fresno, California. Herman and his wife Machara have founded the LIFE foundation (Life intervention for Exonerees) which donates funds to the exonerate and family upon the release of a newly exonerated person.
Herman Atkins is also the chairperson for the Council of the Wrongfully Convicted of California, and he works closely with advocacy groups that promote human rights issues such as the abolishment of the death penalty. His story was featured in the acclaimed 2006 documentary ‘After Innocence.”
Los Angeles Times
July 10, 2006
DNA Proof May Not Go to Jury
By Henry Weinstein, Times Staff Writer July 10, 2006
An unusual wrinkle has developed in the case of a man who was exonerated by DNA testing after serving 12 years in prison for a rape and robbery he did not commit.
Although the Riverside County district attorney declared Herman Atkins innocent six years ago, the county wants to prevent the jury hearing his wrongful conviction lawsuit from learning about the evidence that cleared him.
Atkins, now 40, was accused of raping a woman during a 1986 robbery in a Lake Elsinore shoe store. DNA tests not available during Atkins' 1988 trial were later requested by the defense, and they eliminated him as a source of semen on the victim's sweater. The FBI lab confirmed the results.
The rapist was never caught.As soon as Riverside County Dist. Atty. Grover Trask II learned in early 2000 of the DNA findings, he filed court papers saying Atkins should be freed immediately.
DNA tests had eliminated Atkins "as a possible source of [the] semen … and thus, [he] was not her assailant," Trask's motion said.
"The case underscores how profoundly advances in science and technology have affected criminal justice," he said.Atkins filed suit, claiming that a Riverside detective had fabricated evidence and misrepresented proof in court.
Facing a July 18 trial date in Los Angeles federal court, private lawyers representing Riverside County have argued that innocence does not matter. The sole issue is whether Atkins' rights were violated, they say.
They are also challenging the reliability of the DNA tests. If the county were able to cast doubt on Atkins' innocence, that could have a significant impact on the trial.
In a court declaration filed recently, Riverside's attorney, Christopher D. Lockwood, wrote, referring to the DNA sample, "I am aware of multiple reasons to question the chain of custody. I have never seen any evidence to show that the DNA testing was done properly or that DNA evidence is always 100% conclusive."
Atkins' attorneys sharply disagree with the county's position."The prejudice to Atkins would be immeasurable if the jury did not hear conclusive evidence that he is innocent," Atkins' attorneys Peter Neufeld, Deborah Cornwall and Cameron Stewart said in court papers.
A hearing on the issue is set for Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson.Both Lockwood and Atkins' lawyers declined to comment beyond what was in their court papers.
Earlier in the civil case, Riverside sheriff's Det. Danny C. Miller, a key investigator in the rape case, said in a signed pleading that Atkins' innocence had been established by the DNA tests.
But Lockwood has told the court that Miller is unwilling to file an admission that Atkins had been cleared, although he has offered no evidence to refute the FBI tests, according to papers filed by Atkins' attorneys.
While keeping out the DNA results, the county's lawyers also want to introduce evidence that the rape victim and two witnesses identified Atkins during his trial.
Atkins' attorneys counter that it would be absurd to allow Riverside's lawyers to introduce eyewitness testimony that has been refuted by DNA tests, particularly if the defense is not allowed to present the DNA results.
"In light of the uncontested DNA results, this ID testimony can no longer be considered reliable, or even probative, evidence of Atkins' guilt," they wrote in a recent motion. "Human memory is fallible. DNA testing, when replicated by two laboratories and where there is no evidence of contamination, is not. Miller's mere innuendo cannot change this irrefutable fact."
Their brief emphasizes that 78% of the first 130 DNA exonerations in the U.S. involved mistaken eyewitness identifications.Edward T. Blake, director of Forensic Science Associates in Richmond, Calif., and a nationally known expert, did the initial DNA testing in this case.
He became apoplectic when asked about Lockwood's questioning of the DNA evidence.
"The fully documented and illustrated scientific reports in the Atkins case are a matter of public record and certainly available to Mr. Lockwood," Blake said.
"There never has been any issue in the Atkins case with regard to evidence 'chain of custody' issues, nor has there ever been any issue with regard to the scientific rigor of the analysis that exonerated Mr. Atkins.
"Lockwood's statement is "an insult to everyone in the criminal justice system" who participated in Atkins' release, including defense lawyers, Blake's lab, the FBI lab, Trask and the judge who freed Atkins, Blake said in a telephone interview.
"Do you think that just because a guy in prison and a defense lawyer say he's innocent that everyone falls over backward and says 'OK. We will open the prison doors.' You must be kidding," Blake said.He said that when a convicted inmate is seeking release from prison, he has to meet a very high standard.
"If Herman Atkins had not met that burden of proof, he would not be a free man today," Blake said.
Legal experts said it was highly unusual for a lawyer to attempt to negate DNA results in a case like this one.Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center in Chicago, has worked on several civil suits following wrongful convictions.
He said there are "precious few legal authorities" on the issue of whether a jury is entitled to hear about the actual innocence of an exonerated inmate.In one recent case, U.S. District Judge Paul Plunkett in Chicago issued a strong ruling in favor of bringing evidence of innocence before a jury, Bowman noted.
After spending 15 years of a life sentence in prison for murder during a store robbery, James Newsome was cleared after new technology showed that fingerprints left in the store by the killer did not match his.
Jim Edgar, then the governor of Illinois, pardoned Newsome and declared him innocent.Newsome filed a damages case against Chicago asserting, among other points, that detectives rigged a lineup against him. Lawyers for the city asserted that the issue of innocence was irrelevant.
Plunkett disagreed, saying that excluding the evidence of innocence would have been "highly prejudicial."
"It would have invited jurors to draw the impermissible inference that he was actually guilty and thus absolve defendants of any misconduct," the judge said.
Chicago lawyer Phil Beck, who represented Newsome in the civil suit, said in a phone interview, "The case would not have had nearly the appeal on the damages side if it were a situation that he was wrongfully convicted because the police did not read him his Miranda rights and it was an open question whether he did it.
"I argued that it's 100 times worse to be in prison if you are innocent because the mental anguish you go through is much worse," Beck said. The jury awarded Newsome $15 million, a verdict that was upheld on appeal.
Atkins lives in Fresno, where he is pursuing a graduate degree in psychology. He and his wife, Machara Hogue, have set up a small foundation to help others who have been exonerated obtain basic necessities when they get out of prison.