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California Western -- Los Angeles Judge Reverses Charges after 12 Years of Wrongful Incarceration

Los Angeles Judge Reverses Charges after 12 Years of Wrongful Incarceration
California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law identifies key witnesses, leading to exoneration of innocent man

SAN DIEGO, June 22, 2010 - For the past 12 years, Daniel Larsen has remained in prison for a crime that he did not commit - abandoned by the justice system and given a prison sentence of 25 years to life. 

Yesterday, the California Innocence Project, based at California Western School of Law, learned that U.S. District Court Judge Christina A. Snyder has ordered the reversal of Larsen's conviction, leading him one step closer to freedom.

Daniel Larsen's Case
On a warm June evening in 1998 two police officers confronted Larsen in the parking lot outside of the Gold Apple Bar in Los Angeles. The officers responded to a call that an assault with a deadly weapon was in progress with shots fired. 

The call stated the suspect had a gun, was wearing a green flannel shirt, and had a long ponytail. Police targeted Larsen as the suspect, even though he had a closely shaven head and did not match the description.  

The officers said that, as they drove up to Larsen, they saw him reach into the waistband of his pants, pull out a metallic object, and throw it underneath a nearby car. The officers searched Larsen and the area, and found a six-inch double-edged knife underneath the car. Larsen was arrested and eventually convicted of being an ex-felon in possession of a knife. He was sentenced to 25 years to life under California's Three Strikes Law. 

Eyewitness Account
Years later, investigators from the California Innocence Project found a number of eyewitnesses who were also at the Gold Apple Bar that night and saw a very different sequence of events. 

Chief among them were James McNutt, a retired police officer and former chief of police from North Carolina, and his wife Elinore McNutt. The two arrived a few minutes before the incident, and were standing approximately two feet away from Larsen and another man, William "Bunker" Hewitt, when the police showed up. 

As the squad car pulled up, James and Elinore saw Hewitt turn away from the police officers, pull out a knife and toss it under a car. They never saw Larsen with a knife, even though they were closer to him than the officers. 

Insufficient Representation
At trial, Larsen was represented by Edward Consiglio, a private attorney. Consiglio did not hire an investigator and did not put on any witnesses who contradicted the officers' testimony. Instead, he relied on inconsistencies of the officers' statements to show Larsen was not responsible.  

After his conviction, Larsen was able to find, through friends and relatives, the names of the McNutts and other witnesses at the bar that evening. Consiglio declined to file a motion for a new trial based on the new evidence.  

Consiglio was disbarred in 2008 after repeated disciplinary actions by the State Bar of California. 

Innocence Project Steps In
In 2005, the California Innocence Project began filing multiple petitions on Larsen's behalf in an attempt to challenge his conviction. 

"This case illustrates the importance of independent habeas review by federal courts," says California Innocence Project Co-Director and Professor of Law Jan Stiglitz, who directed the litigation. "The state courts ignored clear constitutionally deficient representation by Larsen's trial counsel." 

On April 27, 2010, Magistrate Judge Suzanne H. Segal of the United States District Court recommended that Larsen's conviction be reversed, finding that "had the jury been able to consider [the McNutts' testimony], no reasonable juror would have found [Larsen] guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." Judge Segal also pointed to the failures of Larsen's attorney, finding his lack of investigation "absurd" and stating there was "no question" that "counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable."  

It was this recommendation that was adopted and ordered by Snyder.  

"Daniel's case is a tragic one, especially considering how easily it could have been avoided," says Justin P. Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project and Professor of Law at California Western School of Law. "His case highlights how important it is for defendants to get good, competent attorneys who conduct a thorough investigation. He is another innocent victim of a flawed justice system." 

The state has 90 days to either retry or release Larsen.