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Commentary: How innocent people land in prison

David Quindt can't escape the 15 months he spent in Sacramento County jail for a murder he didn't commit.

He moved all the way to Hawaii for a fresh start, yet he doesn't want to completely forget. Each semester, he tells his story to law school students to "open their eyes" about how criminal justice in America can go terribly wrong.

Now, Quindt has his own little piece of the new National Registry of Exonerations, the most complete database of its kind ever, about 900 cases since 1989 – and counting.

These exonerations "point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about" because there are many more people who are falsely convicted but aren't able to exonerate themselves, say those who compiled the registry at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools.

The registry is a big deal to those who try to help wrongly convicted people, and rightly so. They say it documents that there are common problems that cause the vast majority of false convictions: mistaken identifications by eyewitnesses, unfounded accusations and misconduct by law enforcement.

"Here is proof," says Jeff Chinn, associate director of the California Innocence Project.

While this is an immensely complicated issue, he and other advocates argue convincingly that there are some relatively simple, inexpensive solutions that could prevent many wrongful convictions, such as videotaping interrogations, changing identification procedures and improving training for police and prosecutors. Many of the fixes have the support of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which plans a summit on the issue in August.

Those who unveiled the registry May 21 and issued a report analyzing the cases call for police, prosecutors and defense lawyers to work together to reduce false convictions. That doesn't seem too much to ask. Yes, we have an adversarial system of justice, but all sides should be able to agree that these miscarriages of justice are doubly devastating – innocent people lose years of their lives and the guilty go unpunished.

Not everyone, though, is convinced that the registry is a call to action.

National prosecutor groups are questioning whether the "exonerations" involve truly innocent people and argue that mistakes are rare and almost always unintentional.

District Attorney Jan Scully, Sacramento County's top prosecutor for 18 years, says while such efforts are "laudable," they are also misleading because the rate of wrongful convictions is "infinitesimal," given how many criminal cases are filed each year. She worries that such reports can undermine public confidence in the justice system's integrity.

In particular, she disputes that two of the three Sacramento County cases cited in the report are really exonerations, as the average person would understand the definition.

Case No. 1: Among "group exonerations" – not counted in the registry total – the report mentions the 2010 dismissal of drunken driving and other charges against 79 defendants because former Sacramento Police Officer Brandon Mullock is alleged to have mishandled the DUI stops and falsified reports.

Scully, however, doesn't consider those drivers to be "exonerated" because they were in all likelihood guilty. She just couldn't make the charges stick without a credible witness.

Case No. 2: Gloria Marie Killian was found guilty of first-degree murder in a 1981 home invasion in Rosemont. In 2002, after 16 years in prison, she was granted a new trial by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that a prosecutor used perjured testimony and withheld evidence.

Scully declined to put Killian on trial again, mainly because she was already eligible for parole and because key witnesses had died. But that doesn't mean she was innocent, the district attorney says.

Case No. 3: Quindt was convicted and faced a life sentence in the 1998 shooting death of 18-year-old Patrick Riley Haeling. A 15-year-old girl inside the Fair Oaks home identified Quindt as one of the gunmen, but another man later confessed.

Scully agrees this is an exoneration. But she points out that Quindt was freed only through the efforts of one of her deputies, Mark Curry. He prosecuted Quindt, then after the trial, pursued an anonymous tip that led to the arrest of three new suspects, who were all later convicted or pleaded guilty.

"The system worked," Scully told me.

Reforms stymied in California

Questions about whether the system works well enough have percolated for years in California. The California Innocence Project, created in 1999 at California Western School of Law in San Diego, has helped exonerate 10 people, most recently Brian Banks, a Long Beach high school football star whose rape conviction was dismissed last month and who is now trying out for the NFL. The Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University's law school has 11 exonerees to its credit since starting in 2001.

In 2004, the Legislature created the state Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice to study wrongful convictions and find ways to prevent them. Before disbanding in 2008, it made a series of recommendations, but then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed bills to turn them into law. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed one reform suggested by the panel. Senate Bill 687 says a defendant can't be convicted based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of jailhouse informants, who are often unreliable.

Some states and cities have reformed their eyewitness identification procedures, including "double-blind" lineups in which the officer conducting them doesn't know which of the photos or people is the suspect. But Scully, like some prosecutors, isn't convinced that such an overhaul would lead to a major improvement.

She does agree with another of the exoneration report's recommendations – video recording interrogations to prevent false confessions. Recordings are standard in serious cases, she says.

For more than a decade, Scully's office has worked with attorneys and the Innocence Project to do DNA testing when they present evidence casting doubt on a conviction. Since 2001, there have been 39 requests, but so far no exonerations.

Like some other district attorneys, Scully also keeps a confidential list of law enforcement officers whose credibility is in question because of past transgressions. Senior staffers decide what to do when a case involves an officer on the list, which now includes 46 current and former officers from nine different agencies. Depending how crucial that officer's testimony is, Scully's office can decline to file charges, dismiss a case or disclose the issue to the defense and proceed.

With those safeguards in place, Scully says she doesn't need a formal "conviction integrity unit" like those in some places, including Santa Clara County. "My whole office is an integrity unit," she says.

Virginia Hench, a University of Hawaii law professor who brings Quindt in to speak, credits Scully's office for admitting it made a mistake in his case. "They usually fight tooth and nail," she says. Hench, who helped start the Hawaii Innocence Project, says her students learn a lot from Quindt. "It's pretty powerful to meet someone who went through that experience," she told me.

After release from prison, then what?

Like many of those exonerated, Quindt did not live happily ever after.

The wrongly convicted often get less financial aid and other help than those who are guilty and paroled. That doesn't make sense. The fair justice commission called for more services to reintegrate them into society, including housing, clothing, job counseling and a cash allowance.

Some of those who are exonerated receive compensation from the state if they were wrongly imprisoned. Quindt collected $17,200 – $100 for each of the 172 days he spent in jail after his conviction. He wanted $45,800, which also included his time behind bars awaiting trial.

Some advocates for the exonerated say the maximum compensation ought to increase and claim the state Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board is too stingy in deciding these awards. Of 71 cases since 2000, the board has denied 48 claims and approved only 11, with payments totaling $3.6 million. Another 12 cases are pending.

Quindt quickly spent his award and could have used additional assistance. "It's been a tough road," he told me.

After twice attempting suicide while in custody, he walked out of jail in May 2000 and then had a bout with depression and had trouble finding work. Six months after his release, he walked into a robbery in progress at a Carmichael liquor store and was hit in the head with a beer bottle. Quindt testified and two men were convicted.

After marrying his childhood sweetheart, Christy, things started looking up when he got work as a roofer and a mechanic. But he hurt his back and says he has been on disability ever since.

In 2003, Quindt moved his family to Hawaii, where he just turned 35 and now has three children. "I just had to get away from all the trouble and all that happened to me," he told me.

But trouble followed him.

He says he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from his jail time. In March, he was stabbed by a man he was trying to help in a drug outreach program and almost died.

"I have bad luck," Quindt says, in what seems to be a colossal understatement. "I'm not really bitter. It's just really sad."

But wrongful convictions aren't a matter of mere bad luck. There are sensible steps that police and prosecutors across California ought to consider to avoid more David Quindts.


For more information about the National Registry of Exonerations, Innocence Projects in California and the administration of justice, go to:

National Registry of Exonerations:

Northern California Innocence Project:

California Innocence Project:

California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice: