Convicted in 1987 of murder and robbery in Los Angeles, Timothy Atkins was released two decades later by the judge who had presided over his trial and sentenced him to prison.
Vincente Gonzalez was shot to death in an attempted carjacking in the early morning hours of New Year's Day 1985. His wife Maria told police that two black men came up behind the car in which she and her husband were sitting. One of the men pointed a shotgun at her husband and demanded the car keys. Her husband complied, but the man shot him nevertheless. The other man held a pistol to her head and tore a chain from her neck. That man, she said, was about five feet, four inches tall. She saw his face for "a second."
Five days later, Atkins, seventeen, and Ricky Evans, nineteen, were arrested after Denise Powell, a young woman whom they knew, told police they had boasted of committing the crime. Maria Gonzalez then identified Evans as the man who killed her husband and Atkins as the man who took her chain, although Atkins was six feet tall — eight inches taller than she initially said the man had been.
Both youths were charged with murder and robbery. At their preliminary hearing, Powell testified about her conversation with Atkins and Evans in considerable detail, quoting Atkins as saying that they had "offed" the driver of the car. Atkins and Evans, who were members of the Venice Shoreline Crips gang, were held for trial in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Other members of their gang, who suspected them of informing, savagely attacked them in jail, jumping on their chests. Evans died as a result. Atkins was rendered unconscious, but survived.
When Atkins came to trial in 1987, the prosecution could not locate Powell, but Judge Michael A. Tynan allowed her preliminary hearing testimony to be read to the jury. Maria Gonzalez identified Atkins in court, but the key prosecution evidence was Powell's claim that Atkins had confessed. The jury quickly found Atkins guilty, and Judge Tynan sentenced him to an indeterminate term of thirty-two years to life in prison.
In 2001, Atkins wrote to the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law in San Diego, but it was not until 2005 that Wendy J. Koen, a law student, finally located Powell at a drug rehabilitation center. Powell readily admitted that she had lied in 1985 and said she would like to set the record straight. She explained that she initially had told neighbors that she knew who committed the crime because she wanted to impress them with her knowledge of gang members. When the neighbors told police what she had said, she was questioned. Fearing that she would be charged with drug possession unless she cooperated, she falsely accused Atkins and Evans.
Based on Powell's recantation, Professor Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, brought a state habeas corpus action on Atkins's behalf. At a hearing before Judge Tynan in September 2006, Powell explained why her preliminary hearing testimony might have seemed persuasive — because all of the details were true, except one. She had in fact discussed the crime with Atkins and Evans — it had been the talk of the neighborhood — but Atkins had not said they "offed" anyone.
The main witness called by the prosecution was Atkins's trial attorney, David S. Wesley, who had since become supervising judge of the Criminal Division of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, but his testimony was helpful to Atkins. Mr. Atkins's case was one of those cases you remember for a long time," Wesley said. "I had some real doubts about whether he was guilty or not. And in fact, when I represented him, I was convinced that he was not guilty. And that doubt stayed with me."
On February 8, 2007, Tynan granted the writ of habeas corpus, saying that the trial testimony of Maria Gonzalez, who did not testify at the habeas hearing, had been "highly questionable, if not totally unreliable" and that no reasonable judge or jury could have found Atkins guilty without Powell's preliminary hearing testimony. Atkins was released the next day. On April 6, 2007, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office dropped the charges.
— Bobbie Lawrence and Rob Warden