Two men are freed after 17 years in prison

March 26, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Clarence Chance and Benny Powell walked into Los Angeles County Superior Court as handcuffed prisoners and left as free men -- released by a judge after they had spent 17 years behind bars for a murder that the district attorney is no longer convinced they committed.

The dramatic ruling yesterday by Judge Florence-Marie Cooper capped an extraordinary series of events for Mr. Chance and Mr. Powell, who were convicted in 1975 of killing a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. Their road to freedom was paved by a New Jersey private investigator who, after four years of painstaking research, uncovered new evidence that defense lawyers say proves the pair were framed by overzealous investigators for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Three people who testified against Mr. Chance and Mr. Powell now say they were pressured into doing so by the police. And when county prosecutors launched their own investigation, they discovered that the Los Angeles Police Department had withheld DTC information that a jailhouse informant who testified against the pair had implicated two other people and that he had flunked two lie detector tests.

With one of the original investigating officers sitting in the audience, Judge Cooper declared the police department's conduct "reprehensible" and said she hoped its Internal Affairs unit would look into what she called the "sordid record" of the case. To Mr. Chance and Mr. Powell, she offered her apologies for the "gross injustices" that had occurred.

And then, amid shouts, applause and tears from the dozens of family members in the audience, the judge said: "Mr. Powell and Mr. Chance, you are free men."

Mr. Chance, a thin man looking a bit frail in a suit coat that was too big, wiped tears from his eyes as his family rushed toward him. Mr. Powell beamed as his sister showed him photographs of young relatives he has never seen because they were born while he was incarcerated.

"I'm not bitter," Mr. Powell said. "I've tried to keep bitterness out of my heart. I feel good."

Judge Cooper's ruling came after a two-hour hearing in which the Los Angeles County district attorney's office did something virtually unheard of in legal circles: It joined in the request by defense lawyers to have the men released and to wipe the convictions off their records.

"This was a terrible thing that happened," District Attorney Ira Reiner said afterward. "It has been corrected. But it has not been undone."

Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates vehemently disagreed.

Chief Gates, along with Lt. William Hall -- who handled the case as a detective and now heads the police unit that investigates officer-involved shootings -- held a news conference after the hearing to say that they believe Mr. Powell and Mr. Chance were properly convicted and that police had done nothing wrong.

The release of Chance and Powell would never have occurred without independent investigator Jim McCloskey, a 49-year-old Protestant lay minister from Princeton, N.J., who has dedicated his life to working on behalf of those he calls "the convicted innocent" -- people who, through corruption or bungling by attorneys or investigators, have been wrongly convicted.

Mr. McCloskey's investigation began with a 1987 letter from Mr. Chance, who told the lay minister that he had been wrongly convicted of the 1973 murder of Deputy David Andrews.

The crucial turn in the case did not come until Mr. McCloskey beganprobing the testimony of jailhouse informant Lawrence Wilson. Mr. Wilson had provided key testimony at the trial, saying Mr. Powell had confessed. At Mr. McCloskey's urging, Deputy District Attorney Peter Bozanich, a high-ranking prosecutor, began his own investigation.

Mr. Bozanich found documents showing that Wilson had implicated two other people in the Andrews killing. He also uncovered the results of two polygraph examinations that deemed Mr. Wilson untruthful.

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