LOS ANGELES – After serving 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Obie Anthony walked out of a Los Angeles County Jail Oct. 4 and joined the ranks of many men and women across the U.S., who were incarcerated on the basis of flawed or false eyewitness testimony.
“It’s really overwhelming at this point. It’s going to take a couple of days before everything really sets all the way in but the fact of the matter is, like I said, I never lost faith. I knew that this day would come so I just stood fast in that and I knew that it would happen,” Anthony told the throng of supporters and media that greeted him during an early celebration immediately after he was released.
Superior Court Judge Kelvin Filer overturned Anthony’s 1995 murder conviction on September 30, because the key witness against him had lied on the stand. There also was no evidence that linked Anthony to the 1994 murder of Felipe Gonzales Angeles.
A Loyola Law School chapter of The Project for the Innocent won Anthony’s exoneration after picking up his case in 2008. Reggie Cole, a co-defendant who was also wrongfully convicted and sent to prison for the murder, was freed by another L.A. judge in May 2010.
“I’m just glad that they came and that they saved me from this situation,” Anthony said, referring to the 3-1/3 year battle waged by The Project for the Innocent and the Northern California Innocence Project.
“I want to be prosperous and do exactly what they’ve been doing, which is reach back and save somebody else, to help someone else that was in the same situation that I’ve been in; to be able to do what they’ve done for me,” Anthony said when asked what he wanted to do with his life now.
Anthony has always maintained his innocence and had alibis even back in 1995, when he was convicted, but they weren’t enough to overcome the prosecution’s case, according to Paige Kaneb, supervising attorney at the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University.
When the case was assigned to her for investigation in 2008, she said they learned that the main witness for the prosecution had actually received a great deal. “He escaped 12 years of prison, basically, for testifying against Anthony and he lied to the jury about it and the prosecution never corrected his testimony,” Kaneb said.
She continued that the Innocence Project’s investigator interviewed John Jones, the key witness, and he admitted to never really seeing Anthony and Cole well enough to identify them and that he had been relying on information from others, including the detectives, to make his IDs.
“In his words, he knew that the detectives weren’t going to let him go down as long as he cooperated with them and that’s what they did. They made sure he didn’t go to jail,” Kaneb said.
Judge Filer chastised prosecutors for withholding that evidence from jurors and ordered Anthony released immediately. Prosecutors have 60 days to decide whether to retry Anthony or appeal the judge’s decision and they’ve been ordered back to court October 31 to announce their decision, Kaneb informed.
“They can’t retry him. They have no evidence. Their one real witness the judge found to be completely unreliable and he’s now admitted he never really saw anything,” she continued.
In “200 Exonerated: Too Many Wrongfully Convicted,” its report on DNA exonerations in the United States, the Innocence Project indicates that while nobody truly knows how many innocent people are in prison, the question itself is haunting, since it reflects the common knowledge that there are undoubtedly more.
The report features the stories of the first 200 people exonerated through DNA evidence. All except one were men. They each served an average of 12 years in prison and a combined total of nearly 2,500 years in prison.
Eyewitness misidentification accounted for 77 percent of the convictions, and, 48 percent of those misidentifications were cross-racial, meaning most commonly a Caucasian person incorrectly identifying a Black person, according to the report.
Kaneb said that while it’s a scary thing that there are innocent people in jail, the problem isn’t necessarily with the system, but it’s with people within the system. “…When people don’t do their jobs, when prosecutors don’t turn over evidence, when defense attorneys don’t investigate cases, and the beauty of the system is when you do eventually bring the truth in front of a good judge, he does the right thing, like in this case. He ordered Mr. Anthony’s conviction overturned and that he be freed,” she said.
“I’ve cried lots of times together because of the time that he’s lost and can’t get back but the thing is we know that we have a future and we can move forward, but those 17 years that he lost is very sad,” said Denise Merchant, Anthony’s fiance. She said she kept pace with his case, step by step, minute by minute, second by second, waiting for his release.
Although he was exonerated on May 15, 2010 after 16 years in prison for a crime he also didn’t commit, Cole said he is still trying to rebuild his life, amid doubts that his freedom is real, and whether or not the police will take him back to prison.
“That’s where I’ve been for so long, so I’m still trying to adjust to the fact that I am here and they can’t take me back to jail because I haven’t done anything wrong,” Cole said.
Cole said the criminal justice system didn’t work for him, but the Innocence Project did. “I’m completely against them,” he emphatically declared when asked if he’s been able to forgive those responsible for his imprisonment.
“I haven’t forgiven anybody and I don’t plan on it because this isn’t a case of mistaken identity or accidental. This is a deliberate act that was committed by the Los Angeles Police Department, namely (detectives) Marcella Winn and Pete Razanskas. They deliberately did this. They deliberately fabricated evidence. They hid evidence. They set us up. Set us up!”
Cole said he has filed a lawsuit against the LAPD and it’s not just about money.
“Somebody has to pay retribution for what happened, namely, the officers who committed the crime. Basically they committed the crime because they covered up the actual shooter. They basically withheld and hid evidence … The judge agreed with us,” he said.
Outside the jail, Cole said it had been a long time and his words for Anthony weren’t scripted but the thoughts he could summon up for him were “Joy. Just joy!”
(Ernesto Arce contributed to this report.)