Proving the power of innocence

Activist law students use DNA, other tools to free the wrongly convicted.

By Claire Cooper -- Bee Legal Affairs Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Friday, March 18, 2005

Peter Rose bolted through an emergency exit to shake the reporters and camera crews, fed up with their demands to tell his story, over and over. 

How did it feel, they asked, to be wrongly convicted of the lowest of crimes? Would he carry a grudge for the 10 years he'd been branded a child rapist? What would he do with the rest of his life? 

He "just knew it was all going to work out," Rose said into the microphones. He had no time for grudges. He would go fishing. 

  Then he jumped a rope barrier and was out the door to join his family, muttering about
the silence that had met his claims of innocence for almost a decade - from the press, the police, even his court-appointed lawyer. 

Golden State University law student Dan Taylor discusses a legal brief with Susan Rutburg, Northern California Innocence Project attorney. 

"I believe lunch was more important to him than my trial," Rose said. 

Once the Northern California Innocence Project took up his case, though, Rose was being believed by the most persistent of advocates - a succession of law students working under a pair of seasoned defense lawyers. 

After two years of work, they were able to upset his conviction and get him freed from prison. Then they cleared his name. 

Innocence projects began opening prison doors for those wrongly convicted about the same time that Rose began serving his 27-year sentence. 

The first was founded in New York in 1992 to tap the potential of DNA for proving people innocent. Today, 30 or so projects are operating out of law schools and journalism schools around the country. Most aren't confined to DNA work but consider any conviction that can be upended by new evidence. 

It can be cut and dried, as in one Los Angeles robbery case. A surveillance tape showed the 6-foot-6 robber walking past a ruler that had been painted on the frame of the Office Depot entry door. The man convicted of the crime, Jason Kindle, was a head shorter. 

Or the evidence can involve a web of false confessions, coerced accusations, eyewitness mistakes and laboratory blunders that can take years to unravel. 

Two California projects have won the release of Kindle and six other men since 2000. Dozens of cases are under investigation at the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law in San Diego and the Northern California Innocence Project, based at Santa Clara University with a new satellite office at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. 

The Rose victory was the first for Golden Gate. 

Relatively crude tests performed on rape evidence in 1995 did not exclude Rose as the possible rapist. Attempts to DNA-type the semen sample had failed then. But after many advances in technology, a successful test became possible. 

Former Golden Gate student Marilyn Underwood "pushed and pushed and pushed," she said, until the state DNA lab confirmed it still had the evidence and, yes, there was enough to do a DNA test. 

Two other students with two supervising lawyers wrote the petition that persuaded the judge to order testing. The results showed the evidence hadn't come from Rose and led to his release on Oct. 29. 

After the victim's recantation, followed by more DNA results in January, another student team helped prepare a motion to have Rose declared "factually innocent." Granted a month ago, it led to the clearing of his criminal record. 

The judge, a former county prosecutor, called the experience "an education for me." 

One student, George Derieg, who worked on the final phase of the case, called it "exhilarating." Rose called the Innocence Project "the best thing that's ever happened to the justice system." 

But Janice Brickley, the lawyer who supervised the project's work, asked in the court hearing for "a day of reflection" - on convicting an innocent man, a father whose youngest child hadn't been born when he went to prison, a son who couldn't support his mother when she went through cancer treatments, a grandson whose grandfather spent his life savings on a defense and died before seeing the

Brickley told the judge she had received an e-mail from a correctional officer, saying he felt "just terrible" that he didn't believe Rose when he said he was innocent. 

Innocence projects have been contributing to public acceptance of the idea that the wrong people really do get convicted, said Kathleen Ridolfi, the Northern California Innocence Project's executive director. There may be a growing consensus, too, that prosecutors as well as defense lawyers have a duty to find and free them. 

"We have great respect for (the innocence projects)," said Karyn Sinunu, assistant district attorney in Santa Clara County. "Our philosophy is, we all have the same interest. If an innocent person is incarcerated or convicted, it means the real culprit is free. We don't want that." 

"Doing justice doesn't mean just winning cases," said San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. "Our mission in our office includes vigorously prosecuting those that commit crimes but not at the expense of those who are innocent." 

In San Diego, Ken Marsh was freed last summer after 21 years in prison for the death of his girlfriend's toddler. When the Cal Western Innocence Project produced medical evidence pointing to an accidental death, Dumanis stipulated to Marsh's release and asked the court to dismiss the charges. 

In the nation, thousands of criminals have been caught with the help of DNA technology, and more than 150 innocent people have been released from prison. 

Few so far have been freed in California. 

Under state law, DNA testing can be ordered after a conviction when it could change the case outcome. 

According to Rockne Harmon, an Alameda County DNA expert who chairs the Forensic Evidence Committee of the California District Attorneys Association, judges have granted testing in about one case a year - an indication, he said, that while many California inmates say they're innocent, few really are. He said prosecutors have other priorities than to look for "needles in haystacks." 

Try telling that to John Stoll. 

In 1985, Stoll, a carpenter and gas plant supervisor who'd never been in trouble before, was sentenced to 40 years. He was among those caught up in a frenzy over alleged sex rings targeting youngsters in Kern County. 

No physical evidence showed the children had been abused. The prosecutions ended when the children's stories escalated wildly. Most of the 40 or so convicted defendants were freed. 

Yet Stoll remained in prison. Abandoned by family and community, he thought he'd been forgotten - until an exonerated defendant persuaded his lawyer to do something for Stoll. 

The lawyer contacted the Innocence Project. Cal Western and Santa Clara students and lawyers worked on the case. 

Soon, Stoll said, "people started to visit. I started thinking of them as friends." 

Two law students - of the dozen who worked for Stoll, along with seven lawyers and an investigator - stayed with the case through their summer vacations and a year past their project courses. 

The defense team tracked down Stoll's now-grown accusers. Ridolfi personally paid to fly in witnesses for hearings. 

Four of the six men recanted. They said they never had believed their accusations but had been coerced by law enforcement and social workers. The fifth said he had no memory of the time. Only Stoll's sixth accuser - his son - stuck to his original story, though he could offer no details. 

Stoll was released last spring, nearly penniless. Ridolfi and her partner, Innocence Project legal director Linda Starr, invited him to stay in their guest cottage for a year to get his bearings. 

He lives there today, surrounded by photos of friends but none of his son, his wife or his former Bakersfield home. 

On a balmy winter day, an investigator drops off a used motorcycle for him. His new neighbors wave. He smiles back, showing a set of teeth donated by a team of local dentists who saw him on television. 

The interviewer had asked Stoll what he wanted most. His first choice was his son, the 5-year-old who ran to him in his dreams when he was in prison. His second choice was being able to smile. 

"I didn't know there was that much kindness in the world," Stoll said of his fortune. 

He does landscaping in the San Jose neighborhood, but his search for steady work hasn't panned out. Determined not to overstay his welcome in the guest house, Stoll, 61, worries about the future. 

"When they turn you loose, there's nothing there for you," he said, not even a letter to potential employers explaining the 20-year gap in his job history. 

Stoll has applied for state compensation that's available to innocent people who've lost money through wrongful imprisonment. It can amount of $100 for each day of loss, but it's rarely granted and never yet to someone exonerated through the Innocence Project. 

Peter Rose, who now lives on the north coast, also will apply. With his judge's finding that he's "factually innocent," his case may be stronger than Stoll's. 

He's stronger in other ways. 

At 37, he walked out of prison and into the arms of an extended family that never doubted him. He went to work as a tender on sea urchin boats operated by cousins in Point Arena and Bodega Bay. 

He hopes to own his own boat some day. 

     About the writer:

          The Bee's Claire Cooper can be reached at (415) 551-7701 or

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