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California Western -- Innocent Man Released from Prison Following 16 Years of Wrongful Incarceration

Innocent Man Released from Prison Following 16 Years of Wrongful Incarceration
California Innocence Project secures Reggie Cole's release from Calipatria State Prison following exoneration in 1994 shooting death

Reggie Deshawn Cole greets his family in a tearful reunion, after 16 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit

SAN DIEGO, May 17, 2010 - On Saturday, Reggie Deshawn Cole was released from Calipatria State Prison after 16 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, thanks to the California Innocence Project, based at California Western School of Law, and San Diego criminal defense attorney Christopher J. Plourd

Cole's newfound freedom comes over a month after he was denied release from prison on April 6. The denial of Cole's originally-scheduled release was based on claims by the California Department of Corrections that his release date was miscalculated, despite confirming with the California Innocence Project multiple times that April 6 was the day he would rejoin his family and society. 

Reggie Cole's Story
Cole's nightmare began on March 27, 1994, when Felipe Angeles was murdered during a robbery in South Los Angeles. Largely based on the false statement of an alleged eyewitness, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested Cole, who was found guilty and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Throughout the trial and the 16 years leading up to Saturday's release, Cole has maintained his innocence. 

Roughly six years after the death of Felipe Angeles, while Cole was serving time at Calipatria State Prison, fellow inmate and convicted murdered Eddie "El Diablo" Eugene Clark plotted to murder him. On November 28, 2000, Clark attacked Cole. In an act of self-defense, Cole stabbed Clark with Clark's own shank. 

Because Cole was incarcerated at the time of Clark's killing, Cole faced the death penalty. Plourd was assigned to represent Cole. 

"After hearing Reggie Cole's story I walked out of the prison with a gut feeling that Cole killed Clark in a desperate 'kill or be killed' situation," says Plourd, "and that he was innocent of the Los Angeles County murder that sent him to prison."

In the course of representing Cole, Plourd uncovered exculpatory evidence, including the fact that the only witness who identified Cole at the crime scene fabricated his testimony. There was evidence that the same witness may have actually been the shooter. Furthermore, none of the forensic evidence at the crime scene, including DNA and fingerprints, implicated Cole. Plourd became convinced that Cole was innocent of Felipe Angeles's murder. 

"The Cole case became more than just another impossible death penalty case," says Plourd. "I not only had to save Cole from the death penalty, I needed to find a way to right the wrong of the justice system that sent him to prison for a crime he did not commit." 

California Innocence Project Helps Cole
Plourd enlisted the help of attorneys with the California Innocence Project to strike the initial murder conviction, eliminating the possibility of the death penalty.

In January of 2009, the California Innocence Project filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Superior Court of Los Angeles in an effort to get Cole's conviction overturned. The petition alleged that Cole received ineffective assistance of counsel, that the prosecution withheld key evidence and knowingly introduced false evidence at trial. The Los Angeles County District Attorney conceded that Cole received ineffective assistance of counsel.

On April 15, 2009, Los Angeles County Judge Jerry E. Johnson vacated the Angeles murder conviction. The Los Angeles County District Attorney formally dropped all charges against Cole on July 2, 2009, nearly fourteen years after he was wrongfully convicted. 

Cole subsequently pleaded no contest to manslaughter for the prison killing. At his sentencing, Plourd and Justin Brooks, professor of law at California Western and director of the California Innocence Project, argued that Cole's sentence should be time served for the wrongful conviction.

One week after Cole's exoneration of the murder of Felipe Angeles, the Imperial County District Attorney's Office filed new charges against him. The allegations claimed that, while incarcerated, Cole concealed a 1 1/2-inch by 1/4-inch-razor blade in his cell mattress.

Suspecting that the charges were retaliation by the District Attorney's Office and a ploy to keep Cole incarcerated for another eight years, the maximum sentence for the charge, Plourd and attorney Alissa Bjerkhoel of the California Innocence Project vigorously investigated the case. They revealed that DNA evidence excluded Cole as a possible contributor. A confession from the inmate housed in the cell directly next to Cole fully exonerated him. Deputy District Attorney Steve Van Decker continued to prosecute the case.

After a review of all the evidence presented by the prosecution in a December 2009 trial, Imperial County Superior Court Judge Christopher Yeager found that the prosecution's evidence was insufficient to sustain a conviction and acquitted Cole. Yeager dismissed the jury that same day.

On January 21, 2010, Yeager granted Cole's petition for a finding of factual innocence, a ruling that Van Decker is currently appealing.

"Reggie's case is another example of a shoddy investigation leading to a wrongful conviction," says Brooks. "I'm grateful that he is released, but there are many more people still in prison who have suffered the same injustice."