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The Case You Go to Law School For
Posted on Oct 18, 2011
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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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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