A Bakersfield man, in prison since 1985, has a chance at regaining his freedom, because of the hard work of the attorneys of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law and the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law. John Andrew Stoll was convicted of 17 counts of child molestation in 1984. But five witnesses who testified as children have recanted their trial testimony of 20 years ago. Kern County Superior Court Judge John Kelley will rule on the new evidence on Fri., April 30 and decide if Stoll was wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.
Beginning in Jan. 2004, four of Stoll’s six former accusers recanted their trial testimony that Stoll, a former building contractor, had molested them. A fifth witness has testified that he has little memory of his childhood and no memory of Stoll molesting him or anyone else. One young man, Stoll’s son, the sixth and final witness, still maintains he was molested by Stoll.
The men took the stand in a Kern County Superior Court room and said that the stories of sexual abuse they told as children were lies, and that they were coerced by law enforcement officials into making false allegations against Stoll when they were boys, ages 6 to 8.
The Northern California Innocence Project and the California Innocence Project are representing Stoll and presenting the newly discovered evidence supporting his claim of innocence.
“The tragedy of this case is the large number of people who were victimized by the actions of Kern County officials – children, their families, and, most profoundly, John Stoll,” said Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project. “It’s time to take the first step toward restoring the community’s faith in justice by reversing John Stoll’s conviction.”
The Stoll case was one of eight Kern County multi-offender, multi-victim sex ring cases in the mid-1980s. Though 40 people were convicted in the prosecutions, the convictions of a vast majority have been reversed over the years due to witness recantations, prosecutorial misconduct, and improper child witness interviewing techniques, which lead to unreliable testimony. If Stoll is not released from prison, he will be eligible for parole in nine months on Jan. 15, 2005.
“These witnesses were forced to tell lies that robbed them of their innocence and robbed a man of 20 years of his life,” said Kathleen ‘Cookie’ Ridolfi, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project. “The children grew up knowing an innocent man was sent to prison because of something they did. John Stoll is a victim but so are the boys and their families. The biggest crime of it all is the District Attorney’s continued refusal to assume responsibility for any of it. Without accountability, we won’t learn from the mistakes, we’ll just keep making them.”
The Northern California Innocence Project and the California Innocence Project are part of the National Innocence Network of similar projects nationwide. Innocence Project students work alongside practicing criminal defense lawyers to seek the release of wrongfully convicted inmates who maintain their factual innocence. The Northern California Innocence Project, based at both Santa Clara University School of Law and Golden Gate University, handles Northern California cases, while the project at California Western School of Law takes on Southern California cases.