Conviction Tossed After 19 Years
John Stoll had spent nearly 20 years behind bars imagining what it would feel like to hear a judge say he had been wrongly convicted. Now that it was happening, his heart was racing so fast he feared he might not survive the experience.
“I thought, ‘Oh great, I’m going to have a heart attack and die in front of all these people,’ ” Stoll said Friday afternoon.
Hours earlier, Kern County Judge John Kelly had overturned his conviction on 17 counts of child molestation in connection with the infamous Bakersfield “witch hunt” cases. Kelly ruled that techniques investigators used to question the alleged victims two decades ago amounted to manipulation and “resulted in unreliable testimony.”
Prosecutor Lisa Green said the district attorney’s office will not seek to retry Stoll, even though she believes he is guilty. “I’m disappointed,” Green said outside court. “You win some, you lose some.”
Sitting in a jail cell awaiting his release, Stoll said he hadn’t absorbed the fact that he is apparently about to go free as early as Tuesday, his 61st birthday. He looked a bit intimidated as he held a cellphone for the first time and tried to figure out how it worked. He knows, though, exactly what he wants to do first when he gets out.
“A piece of steak and a baked potato would be nice,” Stoll said. As visitors suggested eateries around town, Stoll interrupted: “Quite frankly, I’d like to eat outside Kern County.”
As soon as he is able, he said, he will leave Bakersfield. That’s where, in the summer of 1984, he was accused of being the ringleader of a band of child molesters and pornographers. Stoll and his friends constituted one of eight alleged child molestation rings in town, committing a litany of sex acts against children, authorities said.
The “witch hunts,” as critics called them, were the first of a wave of multiple-victim child molestation cases to sweep the nation in the mid-1980s. Unlike the McMartin Pre-School case in Manhattan Beach, in which nobody was convicted, dozens of people in Bakersfield were sent to prison. Stoll is believed to be the longest held of all the convicted molesters around the country.
Stoll had long maintained his innocence, claiming there was no evidence for any of the charges. No indecent photos were ever found, and the child victims, who included his own son, were never examined by a physician. As in many of the cases, Stoll’s conviction was based almost solely on the testimony of child witnesses who defense attorneys maintained had been badgered and brainwashed by overzealous investigators.
As time went on, the convictions of others around the country were reversed on appeal. But Stoll was unable to find an attorney willing to look into his case.
Two years ago, public-interest lawyers from the California Innocence Project in San Diego and the Northern California Innocence Project in Santa Clara tracked down several purported victims who are now adults. Four of them trooped to the stand several weeks ago to describe horrifying treatment, not at the hands of Stoll but of law enforcement and prosecutors. Investigators cajoled, badgered and even threatened them to convince them to testify to sex acts they now said never happened.
Several of those witnesses apologized in court to Stoll and two of them, Eddie Sampley and Victor Monge, were in court Friday to hear the judge’s ruling. Tears rolled down Monge’s cheek when Kelly threw out Stoll’s conviction. “I’m glad and happy,” Monge said afterward.
Stoll’s happiness over the judge’s reversal was tempered by the damaged relationship with his son. Jed Stoll, 25, testified against his father in February, repeating his allegations of two decades ago that his father molested him.
Under questioning, however, he said he couldn’t remember any details of the alleged molestation. He also admitted to lying about some details in court when he was a child.
Defense attorneys this year called an expert who said young children -- Jed was the youngest victim at 6 -- who have been repeatedly questioned can manufacture false memories. Stoll’s lawyers also asserted that Jed was under pressure from his mother, Stoll’s ex-wife, who filed the original complaint against Stoll during a nasty custody battle.
“That was the only thing this day didn’t cure,” Stoll said of his relationship with his son. Jed’s testimony “hurt me. But I can’t do anything about it.”
Stoll’s habeas corpus petition relied on three main arguments: that the investigators tape-recorded victims but now claimed they couldn’t find the tapes; that the questioning techniques were improper; and that Stoll’s conviction was a result of false testimony.
Although several of the former victims remembered a tape recorder, Judge Kelly dismissed that claim after the original investigating sheriff’s deputy, Conny Ericsson, said there was no tape recorder. After finding that the interviews were improper, Kelly said the third argument was unnecessary.
After Friday’s decision, Stoll’s attorneys hugged and cried in the hallway outside court. “I’m beside myself,” said Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University. “To actually see the system work.”
Ironically, as the project savors one of its greatest triumphs, it is facing the prospect of going out of business. Because of state budget problems, the project has lost $400,000 in funding this year.
“There are more John Stolls out there,” said project Executive Director Kathleen Ridolfi. “Unless we raise some money, this project will die.”
Stoll was allowed to meet with reporters at Kern County’s Lerdo jail facility. Reporters asked how he felt about his victory. “I can’t describe it,” said Stoll, sitting at a table in a holding area. “It’s indescribable.”
Kelly’s ruling does not amount to a finding of actual innocence. It means simply that the first trial was so compromised that the conviction must be overturned. Stoll said it was the most he could expect after all these years, and it had to be enough.
“I’m not a child molester,” he said.
One of his attorneys recounted a conversation in which Stoll bemoaned the loss of his early middle age behind prison bars.
The mostly bald head, the lined face, the weary eyes are those of a man sliding into old age. Asked if he was angry that he had to wait all these years for vindication, Stoll shook his head.
“I’ve got a fresh start,” he said. “Let’s move on.”