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The Case You Go to Law School For

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Posted on Oct 18, 2011
AP / Reed Saxon

Bobby Joe Maxwell in 1979, the year of his arrest in L.A’s Skid Row Stabber case.

By Bill Blum

Looking for the latest outrage from the American justice system after the execution of Troy Davis? Meet Bobby Joe Maxwell and get to know his lawyer, Pasadena attorney Verna Wefald.

Now 63 and in his 32nd year behind bars, serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, Maxwell is an accused serial killer once known as the Skid Row Stabber of Los Angeles. Arrested in 1979, Maxwell’s trial was delayed until late 1983 by legal motions and wrangling over the publicity rights to his life story. When it finally commenced, the trial lasted nine months and was the stuff of L.A. noir, orchestrated against a media frenzy that portrayed Maxwell as a shadowy Satanist responsible for the deaths of at least 10 homeless men. The problem is, in all likelihood, he’s innocent.

Wefald, 58, runs a solo law practice specializing in criminal appeals. She operates on a shoestring budget primarily drawn from meagerly paid court appointments. I’ve known her since we were colleagues briefly at the Los Angeles branch of the State Public Defender’s office before the branch was closed down for budget reasons in the early ’90s, and I’ve often wondered how and why she does what she does. For the past 22 years, Wefald has represented Maxwell before state and federal courts, often for free, insisting to anyone who would listen that her client wasn’t guilty, that he’d been framed by perjured testimony and prosecutorial misconduct committed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office.

It’s never been easy. Wefald recently told me that when she first signed on to defend Maxwell on appeal in 1989, “I was young and thought this was the kind of case you went to law school for. About 10 years into it, I wished I had never gone.”

After another decade of failure, including a heartbreaking rejection by the California Supreme Court, Wefald finally won over a panel of three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit who didn’t seem to realize that it had become politically unwise to side with criminal defendants challenging their convictions, especially when the defendants are black and poor. In November, the panel granted Maxwell a writ of habeas corpus, ordering him to be released or retried. The judges found that Maxwell’s conviction was based largely on trial testimony delivered by a notoriously unreliable and since deceased jailhouse informant named Sidney Storch—a transplanted New Yorker and a heroin addict who had a long and public history of dishonesty, starting with his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1964 for being a habitual liar.

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Unbeknownst to the defense at the time, the DA had worked out a secret deal with Storch. In return for testifying that Maxwell had confessed his guilt while the two were briefly housed together at the county jail, the prosecution agreed to shorten Storch’s prison term on multiple counts of forgery and drug offenses from 36 months to 16. The prosecution also withheld from the defense Storch’s extensive record as a government informant. 

Rather than accept the 9th Circuit’s ruling, the state of California has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the circuit. The petition is pending. Should the high court accept the petition and issue a substantive decision in the case, Maxwell will almost assuredly spend the rest of his natural life in prison as there is next to no possibility that John Roberts and his activist conservative associates will rule in Maxwell’s favor. And even if the Supreme Court rejects the state’s petition and sends the case back to the original trial court and the district attorney, Maxwell won’t be out of the woods as the DA has indicated that he will retry Maxwell without Storch’s recorded testimony from the first go-round. 

Even with Storch’s testimony in the original case, the prosecution was able to convict Maxwell of only two counts of murder. The trial jury hung on five murder charges and returned not-guilty verdicts on three.

Storch was the prosecution’s prize witness and without him, the case against Maxwell was and remains extraordinarily weak. As the 9th Circuit’s opinion notes, “ ... The prosecution’s best physical evidence linking Maxwell to any of the crime scenes was a palm print on a public bench found near the body of one of the victims. The bench, however, was located in an area Maxwell [who was himself a transient] frequented, and the prosecution was unable to isolate the age of the print.” There were also some muddy footprints found at one crime scene, and, although the prosecution’s forensic expert testified that they were consistent with Maxwell’s shoes, he also conceded they were too indistinct to prove anything.

Nor did the stabbings on Skid Row stop after Maxwell was taken into custody. Indeed, the court prevented the prosecution from claiming as much at trial.

So why not after so many years correct such an obvious injustice? The answer lies partly in the history of Maxwell’s particular case and partly in the general degeneration of the American criminal justice system into a game of might makes right.

Back in 1979, when Maxwell was arrested, Los Angeles was a city in fear, gripped by a surge in violent crime that had seen the murder rate skyrocket 84 percent over the course of the decade. At the same time, the city was rocked by the rise of criminal gangs—the Bloods, the Crips and the Mexican Mafia, among many others—fueled by years of official neglect of the area’s ghettos and an epidemic in the use of crack cocaine.


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By Aneeka, November 22, 2011 at 9:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Wow, I am so glad that Bobby Joe’s conviction was thrown out and hope that he will be released soon. He was our neighbor and a very close family friend at the time of his arrest.  I was a small child, but remember that he would teach the kids in our South L.A. apt complex karate. To this day my older siblings and my mother talks about what a nice guy he was and that they never believed he was the “Skid Row Stabber.” My mother worked nights and he babysat us, without causing us any harm. I’ve told the story over and over again of how our babysitter turned out to be a serial killer. My motehr was interviewed by the L.A. times, and she stated that she did not believe that he was capable of these horrible crime. She kept in touched w/him a few years after his conviction but lost contact after we moved so many times.  I called my mother as soon as I read this article. She was very happy to hear that his conviction was overturned.

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By gerard, October 20, 2011 at 4:00 pm Link to this comment

Alan, maybe that will turn out to be yesterday and we can all rejoice. Stand behind Occupy Wall Street nationwide, and the restoration of full rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America.  Something good can happen.

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By Alan, October 20, 2011 at 5:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yes, if you are poor and steal one dollar, you are off to jail.  If you are rich and
“steal” a billion by fraud you are applauded as a very smart financial wizard.  Good
chance you will get massive pay to advise the Washington worthless.

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By gerard, October 18, 2011 at 11:05 am Link to this comment

I take this opportunity to honor Ms. Wefald.  She followed the path which I rejected years ago when I went into teaching instead of becoming a defense attorney. It’s probably one of the toughest, most heart-breaking jobs in the world and requires the courage of a lion.

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By kookiecat, October 18, 2011 at 9:33 am Link to this comment

Thank you for bringing the struggle of Maxwell and his attorney to our attention. 
One has to wonder how many innocent people condemned to a life sentence are
rotting there without the benefit of attorneys willing to fight for their freedom
because of lack of money.

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By balkas, October 18, 2011 at 7:37 am Link to this comment

a society structured in layers causes layered justice.  and not only in jurisprudence
but also in areas of daly living: work, traffic, marriage, soldiering, religion, politics,
schooling, etc.
and if neither evolution [education, schooling] or revolution changes present
structure/strictures of society to an idyllicly egalitarian one, injustice wld stay with
us forever.

yes, even pedophila, kleptomania, lying, misleading, child/wife beating, wars,
abuses of power, poverty, religious strife, ‘sport’, present infantainment, hatread,
envy, murder, addiction to power/drugs, etc. tnx

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By ardee, October 18, 2011 at 4:53 am Link to this comment

The courts of this land are another area in need of reform. The facts show plainly that the poor get much harsher sentencing than do the wealthy, and DNA evidence has cleared many, many death row inhabitants of guilt.

The practice of offering reduced sentencing for testimony is an obviously flawed practice and police are far more interested in clearing case load than in actually finding the guilty party.

Then there is our penal system to consider…...

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