Santa Clara University School of Law’s Northern California Innocence Project wins a client exoneration, using a law they helped make happen.
Ed Easley is an innocent man, wrongfully convicted of molesting a seven-year-old girl. She later recanted. She eventually tearfully told a judge her mom had forced her to accuse Ed to protect another. And the actual guilty party ultimately made admissions on the stand.
Yet at the time, Ed Easley pleaded guilty to avoid the terrifying prospect of a jury verdict of 35 years in prison.
In an ideal world, Ed Easley would have been exonerated. He would not have served five years in prison and had to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. He would not have had to camp out for long stretches because he couldn’t find housing due to his sex offender label. And he would not have had to turn down jobs as an electrician just because a client has kids.
But this is not an ideal world.
Ed went to court no fewer than six times in the past ten years, to try to get his conviction reversed. He was denied four times. Not only was the court a problem, but the law did not allow for the new evidence of his innocence to get him released.
So as the years went on, his lawyers from the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) kept believing in his case, and kept working on changes in the law. Last year, two new laws were passed with NCIP support that radically changed the ability of Ed Easley to find justice. SB 1134 and AB 813 might as well have been called the Ed Easley Needs Justice Act, Parts I and II.
Last Thursday, one of those brand new laws did just that: brought Ed Easley some justice.
Here’s the saga behind Thursday’s decision.
After being accused by his girlfriend’s seven-year-old niece of molesting her, Easley was arrested. He would learn much later that the girl was protecting her male cousin, the true molester, at the behest of his mother (her aunt) and her own mother, who forced the girl to accuse Easley instead of her cousin.
But at the time, with no clear way to prove his innocence, and a prosecutor who insisted that there was damning “medical evidence” (the evidence was bogus) Easley pleaded guilty. He served five years in prison, another five on parole, and another three for failing to register as a sex offender.
After the truth came out, his lawyers tried to get a new hearing, using the only channel they had – seeking a “writ of habeas corpus.” That’s essentially a demand to the court to do its duty and reverse the wrongful conviction. Problem: Ed had already served his five years, and was no longer “in custody” thus he no longer had “standing” as required for the writ. Never mind that he was still imprisoned by the requirements of registering for the rest of his life as a sex offender.
And never mind that the victim was fighting for his exoneration too, racked by her own guilty feelings for putting him behind bars.
He appealed. Again. This time the appellate court said he could have a new hearing.
After a five-day hearing in 2009, with both victim and actual perpetrator testifying to his innocence, he lost again.
However, the judge who turned him down, Judge Halpin, wrote in his order that if the standard were “whether or not a reasonable jury would have convicted Easley, based on all the evidence including the recantation, this court, by a preponderance of the evidence, finds there would not have been a conviction.” But that wasn’t what the judge had to decide.
Easley appealed again. Denied without even saying why.
He appealed to the California Supreme Court. Denied. No standing.
Meanwhile, in Sacramento, two laws passed on issues that NCIP had worked to redress for over a decade.
One new law, AB 813 (Gonzalez), enables people who have already been released from custody to prove their innocence. It changes the all-important “standing” requirement – one of Easley’s big stumbling blocks.
The other new law, SB 1183 (Leno-Anderson), made a huge change in the standard for the introduction of new evidence to prove innocence. The change did away with the need for such evidence to “point unerringly to innocence” in order to reverse a conviction (a standard which was so high it was virtually unattainable). Instead, the new law says if it’s “more likely than not” that new evidence would have made a difference in the original trial, a decision can be reversed.
“The new standard is a game-changer,” exults Linda Starr, NCIP’s director, who had Ed in mind when NCIP fought for two years for the new “more likely than not” standard.
So, for the sixth time in seven years, Starr, NCIP co-counsel Paige Kaneb, and Easley headed to court, armed with these two new laws that brought Ed Easley fresh hope.
At the hearing focused on the new evidence, NCIP persuaded the judge that the new “more likely than not” law applied to Easley. Moreover, they said the judge was legally bound to consider the fact that Judge Halpin had already declared — several denials ago — that Easley’s fresh evidence of innocence would “more likely than not” have affected the outcome at his first trial. So under the new law, NCIP argued that he was entitled to have his verdict vacated.
The judge seemed to find that persuasive, but asked the DA to respond, setting a hearing for Aug. 31.
The legal term for being bound by Judge Halpin’s court ruling would be “collateral estoppel.”
On Thursday, Aug. 31, Ed Easley got that all-important collateral estoppel, with the DA’s agreement and a dismissal of charges.
That means his conviction – which has been ordered upheld no fewer than four times – has finally been vacated. He can stop registering wrongly as a sex offender. He can find a home, take those electrical jobs and most importantly, he can truly start to recover.
“It took 24 years, but the truth finally came out,” said attorney Kaneb. “At least two people were overcome with relief by the news: Ed Easley, whose name will now be cleared, and the victim herself, whose conscience can now be cleared. Sometimes justice delayed is not, fortunately, justice denied.”