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From: Margi 
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Sent: Monday, June 16, 2003 12:24 AM
Subject: SF Gate: A presumption of guilt/Prosecutors long ago had indications that murder convict was innocent

 Another innocent victim of the (in)justice system freed
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Sunday, June 15, 2003 (SF Chronicle)
A presumption of guilt/Prosecutors long ago had indications that murder convict was innocent. Harriet Chiang, Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writers

Rick Walker slumped in his chair. He had just learned he was likely to spend the rest of his life in prison for a murder he did not commit.

The prosecution's star witness, a 21-year-old drug dealer whom Walker barely knew, had tearfully recounted that he was so frightened of Walker that he helped him kill Walker's former fiancée -- and could do nothing but watch her die.

It was Dec. 10, 1991, and the 35-year-old Walker, an auto mechanic and son of a prominent East Palo Alto councilwoman, would soon be shipped to San Quentin, then Pelican Bay. Twelve years later -- after his father had died, after his young son had become a man -- Walker was set free, thanks to a family friend who provided irrefutable evidence that Walker wasn't the killer.

"It might seem strange to people, but I'm not a bitter man," the soft-spoken Walker said this week. "Part of the Bible is about forgiveness.  What am I supposed to do -- tear that page out?"

He's had a lot to forgive. Prosecutors had signals from the beginning -- soon after Walker walked into state prison -- that they had the wrong man.

The body of Lisa Hopewell, 34, was found at an upscale condo off Stevens Creek Boulevard in Cupertino on Jan. 10, 1991.

Her hands were tied behind her back, and her face was wrapped in silver duct tape. She died of suffocation and from knife slashes to her throat and vaginal area.

Hopewell had a degree from Princeton and landed a marketing job on Madison Avenue. But drugs and alcohol sent her life spiraling out of control.

Hoping to break the addiction, she came to San Jose to be near her father.   Through a mutual friend, she met the burly ladies' man Walker, and they eventually became engaged. But it didn't last -- "too possessive," Walker would later say.

From the beginning, sheriff's deputies focused on Walker because of his tempestuous relationship with Hopewell.  "It was based on his ties to Lisa Hopewell," says Santa Clara County sheriff's investigator Jerry Egge, now retired. "He had a lot of motive."

Authorities quickly seized on fingerprints found on the duct tape used to gag and suffocate her -- fingerprints that matched with Rahsson Bowers, a 21- year-old East Palo Alto drug dealer.

After his arrest, Bowers fingered Walker and "two white guys" for the slaying. But after Bowers failed a polygraph test, investigators pressed him further. He changed his story and said Walker killed her and forced Bowers to help him.

Walker doesn't know how his name came up, but his lawyer speculated that sheriff's deputies mentioned his name to Bowers.

Walker was stunned when he was arrested. Investigators sat him down and played a tape of Bowers, whose cars he had worked on, implicating Walker as the killer.

Walker insisted he had an alibi, telling investigators that he spent the night at a hotel with a married woman. But police clocked the trip between the hotel and Hopewell's condo and figured it could be made in 20 minutes -- enough time to commit the murder.

Walker feared his fate was sealed.

Walker was sitting by himself during a break in a pretrial hearing when Deputy District Attorney John Schon walked over.

Scion leaned over, Walker recalled, and said quietly: "Bowers is going to testify against you. He's going to get up on that stand, and he's going to cry.  And we're going to convict you." Scion kept his word.

The case went to trial in November 1991. Walker and Bowers were co-defendants. The prosecutor was about to wrap up his case, when Bowers' attorney abruptly announced that her client had struck a deal and was pleading guilty to second-degree murder. The move caught Walker by surprise.

Bowers took the stand and became the prosecution's tearful star witness.   He painted a grim picture of the night of the slaying. He testified that he had been at the condominium with Walker and Hopewell, who were smoking crack, and had gone into the kitchen to work on a jigsaw puzzle.

Suddenly, he said, Walker erupted in a fit of rage and grabbed Hopewell.  "Tear me some tape, I'm going to kill this b--," Bowers said Walker demanded, threatening him if he didn't go along.

Bowers said he helped bind the woman's face in duct tape. He said he watched Hopewell repeatedly gulp as she died. "I was stuck, I couldn't move," Bowers said. Asked why, he said, "Because I ain't never killed nobody before."

One of the jurors was so moved by Bowers' account of Hopewell's death that she asked for a tissue. At that point, Walker knew it was all over.

Jurors didn't buy Walker's alibi, even though the woman he was with the night of the slaying took the stand, and he produced receipts from the Milpitas Holiday Inn. The woman was hazy about exactly when Walker was at the hotel.

They also appeared convinced by testimony from Walker's jilted ex-girlfriend -- who made a secret deal with prosecutors for leniency in a drug case -- that Walker was violent and regularly wore gloves similar to those believed to have been worn by one of the killers.

After five days of deliberation, the jury found Walker guilty of first-degree murder.

The prosecutor, meanwhile, got the judge to sign a letter to urge the prison system to parole Bowers at the earliest possible date.

"I was totally convinced by the creep," prosecutor Scion said. "I thought he was in danger, his family was in real danger from him testifying."

Walker's family was determined to find a way to free him. His father, Willie Walker, went out in the neighborhoods and started talking to people, bent on finding someone who knew what happened on the night of the killing.

Finally, he found someone who would talk.

On Feb. 12, 1992, Walker's father submitted a sworn statement to the court to help the defense get fingerprint records for a man known as "Little Markie."

In his statement, Willie Walker said he talked to a witness who said he was supposed to go along with Bowers and "Little Markie" to Hopewell's condo "to steal anything of value there."

The man claimed he was "too spaced out" to go but remembered tossing a roll of duct tape in the car that was to be used in the burglary.   Willie Walker's letter prompted Scion to visit "Little Marcie," who was by then in Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas.

When asked about Bowers, the inmate said: "I don't know him," Scion recalled of the Feb. 21, 1992, visit.   Ten days later, the district attorney received a letter from another Elmwood inmate. "Without a doubt, Mr. Walker is not the one," the inmate said of the Hopewell slaying. The inmate said he got the information "straight from the mouth of the person who was there during this evil disgrace to life, death. "

Scion says he doesn't remember receiving the inmate's letter. But after the jailhouse visit, Scion recalls, he was still convinced that he had convicted the real killer.

"I absolutely believed Bowers. That's where I was coming from," Scion said. "He convinced me, he convinced the judge, he convinced the jury."

At Pelican Bay, one of the state's highest-security prisons, Walker had to learn the hard rules of life inside.   "You kind of watch what everybody else does and try not to get tied into any group," he said, choosing to steer clear of any prison gang.   He made a couple of friends, including an inmate who was a minister and eventually became his mentor.

The hardest part for him was leaving his 11-year-old son, William, whom he saw grow through photos that were sent to him every month. Walker accumulated more than 1,000 photographs of his boy.   Because of the distance and the strict prison regulations, he got to see his son in person only once during those 12 years behind bars.

Walker's father -- who never lost faith in him -- died while Walker was in prison. Walker got the news about his father when an officer opened his cell door and asked him whether he had a phone number to call home.   "What's this about?" Walker asked. The officer just told him to call. When his mother came on the phone, Walker said he instantly knew. "Dad, right?"

Yes, she replied.   When he got the news of yet another lost appeal, Walker said he wasn't devastated, because he didn't expect much.   He had seen thousands of inmates before him who had gone from one court to another to try to overturn their convictions -- only to fail each time. "Denied, denied, denied," he said. "That's all it is all the way up the ladder. "

But somehow, he never gave up hope. That's because he had Alison Tucker.   Alison Tucker was a corporate lawyer at Morrison & Forester, one of San Francisco's most prestigious law firms, when she took over Walker's case in 1999. Walker had just lost his final appeal. Shortly after Walker's 1991 conviction, his mother, Myrtle, had contacted Tucker's mother, who was on the Palo Alto School Board. At the time, the younger Tucker was in law school at Stanford.   Tucker and Myrtle Walker, then an East Palo Alto councilwoman, had lunch soon after the jury verdict. Myrtle pleaded her son's case to Tucker. The young woman met with Rick Walker while he was in the county jail awaiting sentencing. She was also in court when the judge handed down the penalty.

Years later, with the appeals exhausted, Tucker stepped into the case and began her own investigation.   She was convinced that Walker was innocent -- and that the district attorney's office hadn't seen justice done during the trial. Tucker wrote Santa Clara County District Attorney George Kennedy, asking him to preserve the evidence in the Walker case.   She traveled to prisons and county jails throughout the state conducting interviews.   Some inmates were reluctant to talk, but she made sure they knew she was doing this for Walker, and she assured them that she would protect their names.

In response to Tucker's inquiries, the district attorney's office began its own investigation.   Not long after, investigator Ray Meddled talked to a man referred to in court documents as Witness BE -- the same man who wrote the letter to prosecutors in 1992.

"I don't know how the dude got arrested and charged with this . . . . I don't even know why he's in jail," the inmate told Meddled.   But prosecutors interviewed another man -- later discredited -- who claimed that Walker was at the scene but did not commit the killing. By 2001, they had decided to shelve their investigation when Walker did not want to be interviewed.

Tucker said she had decided not to let Walker talk after consulting with him.   "We concluded, OK, the conviction was righteous," said Assistant District Attorney Karin Sinuous. "There is nothing more we can do."   By February of this year, Tucker had made great progress.   She had five witnesses who said that Walker was not the killer.   As a result, the district attorney's office reopened its investigation.  The office agreed to test cigarette butts found in Hopewell's condominium.

In 1991, DNA was still a relatively new forensic tool and investigators had no lab in the county to test the cigarette butts or even enough traces to test.   But a trace of saliva on one of the butts turned out to match that of someone else -- "Little Marcie," the same man identified by Walker's father so many years before.

Tucker took her case to the district attorney. Within weeks, investigator Meddled used the DNA evidence to track down the man, yet to be named, whom authorities are now convinced was Bowers' real accomplice in the slaying.

Paul Kicking, the jury foreman, says he regrets the verdict, which he calls a miscarriage of justice." Now that the Walker case has fallen apart, Kicking is a more ardent opponent of the death penalty.

Scion, the prosecutor, says he has trouble sleeping since the news broke about Walker's innocence.

"I feel terrible about this," he said. "This doesn't happen in this area, this doesn't happen in this county. I can't tell you how bad I feel about it."

Bowers remains in prison. For now, Walker would rather focus on the future and spend a few days up at Clear Lake getting to know his son who, he proudly notes, is a warehouse manager for a bamboo floor company.   At 24, William is now as tall as his dad.

One thing is for sure, Rick Walker says. He wants to go back to prison and teach Bible classes. "I like to believe that I can give them some sense of hope."

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