A lifelong heavy drug user, frequently homeless or in jail, Denise Powell was a hard person to track down.
Researchers for the California Innocence Project spent months searching for Powell -- who was only in intermittent contact with her own family. Their goal was to finally document on the record what Powell had been openly admitting for years: Her testimony implicating Timothy Atkins for murder was false.
When researcher Wendy Koen finally found Powell in early 2005, in rehab after a recent arrest, she confessed without hesitation.
“She was ready to talk. She’d been wanting to talk for years,” Koen said. “She said, ‘I was young and stupid. I didn’t know it would come to this. I lied.’ ”
Thus began the final step in Atkins’ 20-year campaign to prove his innocence. On Friday morning, Atkins, now 39, walked out of Los Angeles County Jail and into the arms of his family, free for the first time since his teens.
“It’s over. I made it,” he said, as weeping, whooping relatives lined up to embrace him. “I don’t think the realization hit me until late last night.”
In light of Powell’s recanted testimony, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Tynan overturned Atkins’ conviction Thursday and ordered his immediate release. Tynan was the trial judge in 1987 when Atkins was convicted of second-degree murder and two counts of robbery and sentenced to 32 years in prison.
In his ruling freeing Atkins, Tynan recalled that Powell’s testimony was “the key to the conviction in this case.... The state has no interest in upholding a conviction obtained by false testimony.”
On Friday, Atkins still looked a little shellshocked as he was swarmed by dozens of ecstatic family members and the beaming legal team from the California Innocence Project, part of the California Western School of Law in San Diego.
“This is the pinnacle of our existence,” said project director Justin Brooks. “This is the whole goal: freeing the innocent.”
Back at his cousin Tanya Franklin’s house in South Los Angeles, Atkins dispensed hugs and fielded congratulatory phone calls. After decades of incarceration, he spent most of his time outside on the front lawn.
Franklin asked, “You want to come inside?”
“No,” he answered, “I want air.”
Atkins’ conviction stemmed from a New Year’s Day 1985 carjacking attempt in which flower shop owner Vincente Gonzales was killed.
Powell, an acquaintance of Atkins at the time, told police that Atkins and another man, Ricky Evans, had bragged about killing Gonzales. Both men were arrested. Evans was beaten to death in jail before the case could come to trial; Atkins was seriously injured in the same jailhouse fight.
“I’m thinking about Ricky a lot today,” said Atkins, who has remained in contact with Evans’ mother.
If Evans had lived, “He would have been exonerated as well,” Koen said. “It was the same evidence against him.”
Police were unable to find Powell to testify at Atkins’ trial. Instead, her testimony at a preliminary hearing was read aloud in court.
In his ruling releasing Atkins, Tynan wrote that Powell’s absence from the trial was crucial. If she had appeared, subject to cross-examination from the defense, “her demeanor and other indicia of truthfulness and veracity, or their absence, would have been observed by the jury,” Tynan wrote. “In all reasonable probability the result would have been more favorable” for Atkins.
Other evidence, such as a vague description of the suspects from the victim’s widow, were deemed equally shaky in hindsight by Tynan.
The judge also leveled pointed criticism at police for their “casual attitude toward maintaining contact with Powell.” The failure to find and produce her for the trial “appears to be an error of constitutional magnitude,” Tynan wrote.
Despite losing half his life to the prison sentence, Atkins said he bore no ill will toward Powell or anyone else.
“The past is the past,” he said. “If I see her, I’ll speak to her and if I can help her, I will.”
Atkins and several family members expressed sympathy for Powell, who has a long history of drug addiction and legal problems and has said she was remorseful over her role in Atkins’ jailing.
Powell told researchers she was pressured by police to name a suspect in Gonzales’ slaying.
“They got her into the station and told her, ‘You’re not going to leave until you tell us something,’ ” said Brooks, who listened to a recording of Powell’s initial interrogation.
“She had a whole lot of guilt over what she had done to Tim’s life,” said Koen, who videotaped Powell’s statement for the Innocence Project and tracked her down a second time to sign an official court declaration of her changed testimony. “The guilt has really destroyed her life in a lot of ways.”
Atkins, who said he plans to work counseling at-risk youth, was remarkably philosophical Friday about his ordeal. He admits to a misspent youth before his arrest and views his incarceration as the only reason he’s going to live into his 40s.
“I was a gang member. I was a thief and I had a drug habit,” he said. “The life that I was living before, I probably would have ended up dead.”
The Los Angeles County district attorney has 60 days to refile charges against Atkins. But Brooks does not expect prosecutors to do so.
“They have no case. They had no case 20 years ago,” he said.
Brooks plans to file for state compensation, which offers $100 for each day in prison for those found to be wrongfully convicted. For Atkins, that could mean close to $800,000.
There’s also the possibility of a civil suit against the police for wrongful imprisonment, “but that would be a tougher nut,” Brooks said.
“First we’ll go for the compensation and get him some money to get on his feet.”
For now, Atkins is celebrating, adjusting to life as a free man and enjoying some home cooking.
“I’m whole now. I got my baby back,” said Atkins’ mother, Joyce Boney. “I’m going to the store. My boy wants to eat.”