Inmate's future hangs on new tale

Times Staff Writer

When jurors convicted a 32-year-old chauffeur of murder more than two decades ago, they relied on the word of an unlikely star witness, Willie Finley.

Finley was a known drug dealer and convicted murderer. His rap sheet spanned five pages when he identified the defendant as one of two gunmen who burst into his South Los Angeles home and killed a friend.

Although jurors were told about Finley's criminal record, he now says there were key facts they didn't know: A detective coached him to identify the suspect in a photo lineup; he was high on crack when the murder occurred; and he was strung out on drugs again when he delivered the decisive testimony at trial.

Today, Finley, 63, says he is a different man from the violent career criminal who helped send Willie Earl Green to prison for 33 years to life. Drug-free, he credits his younger brother with helping him reflect on the killing and tell the truth about the murder case.

Los Angeles County prosecutors, however, argue that their aging witness cannot be trusted. The lead detective strongly denies that he influenced Finley's identification. And, prosecutors say, circumstantial evidence points to Green as the murderer.

A Los Angeles County judge is expected to decide in the next few weeks whether Finley's recantation is enough to overturn Green's conviction and grant him a new trial.

The case, legal experts say, underscores the fragility of eyewitness identifications. Studies have shown that faulty identifications are the biggest factor in wrongful convictions. But innocence claims involving recanted testimony are rarely successful because courts look skeptically at witnesses, such as Finley, who years later say they lied or made a mistake at trial.

"As a judge, it's hard to get in trouble for upholding a jury verdict," said Jean Rosenbluth, a professor at USC's School of Law and a former federal prosecutor. "But . . . you can get flak for letting a convicted murderer out of jail."

Green has always maintained his innocence. He has passed a polygraph test administered at the behest of his attorney and won the support of the jury forewoman who convicted him. Even the victim's mother says she has always had doubts about Green's guilt.

But as he awaits a ruling from his prison cell, Green faces a harsh reality: His fate depends on the credibility of the man who helped put him there 23 years ago.

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Willie Finley's criminal ways began when he was a youngster. He broke into cars, committed robberies and frequently landed in juvenile lockups.

In 1965, at age 21, Finley and two friends robbed the Star Room bar in South Los Angeles. Finley beat the bartender with his chrome .22-caliber handgun and demanded cash from the register.

When a 53-year-old patron made a dash for the door, one of Finley's cohorts chased him into the parking lot and fatally shot him. Finley and the others were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Twelve years later, Finley was released on parole.

Within a year, according to court records, he was visiting an acquaintance when a fight broke out in the man's apartment and Finley shot the man in the stomach. For that, Finley served 2 1/2 more years behind bars.

He was released from prison in 1982 and started selling crack out of a house his mother owned in Jefferson Park. He hired Denise "Dee Dee" Walker, an attractive 25-year-old single mother, to cook the crack.

On the evening of Aug. 9, 1983, Walker was making crack while Finley was outside on the sidewalk. A man came up, pistol-whipped Finley and forced him inside the house, according to court records.

The gunman ordered Walker to unlock the back door. A second man carrying a sawed-off shotgun walked in and grabbed her by the hair.

"Oh, no, Willie!" Walker screamed.

The second intruder then hit Finley on the head with the shotgun and took a set of keys from him. He went to the bedroom where Finley kept his cash and drugs.

When he returned to the kitchen moments later, he handed the shotgun to his accomplice and left. The accomplice turned his attention to Walker, who lay screaming next to Finley.

"You tried to dog me, didn't you?" he yelled as he pulled shotgun shells from a pocket and loaded the weapon. "You're the only one that knows me." He pointed the shotgun at her chest and fired, then escaped out the back door.

As Walker lay dying, Finley scurried around the house collecting drugs and other tools of his trade that the gunmen had missed. He dumped them in an alley behind his home and fled.

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Homicide detectives had no fingerprints or forensic evidence to point to a suspect.

Their strongest clue came from Patricia Austin, a neighbor who had been in Finley's house at the time of the killing and heard Walker's cry of "Willie!" They didn't think Walker had been referring to Finley; most friends knew him by his nickname, Doug.

Detectives caught up with Finley a month later selling drugs from a friend's apartment. Finley was arrested and taken to jail, where police asked him about the slaying and had him look at mug shots. Finley, however, did not identify anyone.

The trail appeared cold until Walker's mother told investigators that her daughter had been the victim of an assault a year earlier. Two men had been arrested in that case. One was named Willie.

The case file shows that Willie Green had briefly lived at Walker's apartment on La Brea Avenue with his cousin, who dated Walker. She threw the two men out after noticing needle marks on her boyfriend's arm.

Green's cousin returned to the apartment the same night brandishing a butcher knife, and he chased Walker, threatening to kill her.

Green dashed in, grabbed a television and fled. Both men pleaded guilty to grand theft. Green was released and given probation.

As detectives reviewed that case for a link to Walker's slaying, they learned that Green's cousin was in prison the night of the shooting. But Green had no such alibi.

Detectives interviewed Finley in jail again, showing him six photographs of possible suspects, including Green's. This time, they said, Finley tentatively identified Green as the man who had come in through his back door. He also tentatively identified another man police thought might have been the shooter.

At an in-person lineup, Finley pointed to an innocent stand-in as the shooter. But he picked out Green as the second intruder, who under California law could also be charged with Walker's murder.

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"I can't forget a face like that," Finley told jurors at Green's murder trial.

The prosecutor told jurors that "Mr. Finley may not be your cup of tea, but that doesn't mean that he's incapable of telling the truth."

Green's attorney, David S. Wesley, said Finley had proved himself an unreliable witness. For example, Finley testified that he still believed the innocent man he picked at the lineup was the actual shooter.

"You know, it is a terrible thing to convict a man of a crime he didn't commit," Wesley said. "And I am not sure once the wrong is done that it is ever righted."

After a day of deliberations, the jurors convicted Green. All of them, according to the jury forewoman, believed Finley.

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Shortly after the trial, Finley was linked to a string of armed robberies and sent back to prison. In 1988, at 44, he returned home weary of prison life. He quit using cocaine and began working as a maintenance man at a mid-Wilshire-area restaurant.

In 1993, Finley confided to his brother that the pistol-whipping he got before the killing left his face so swollen that he could not properly see the assailant he later identified as Green. He had picked out Green, he said, with the help of detectives.

His brother, a former criminal investigator for the U.S. Army and now vice president of a security firm, encouraged him to tell authorities, but Finley refused.

The matter lay dormant for years until a lawyer for Green knocked on the door.

At first, Finley stuck to the version he gave at the trial. But later, at the urging of his brother, Finley changed his story.

Since then, Finley has testified and signed sworn declarations backing away from his identification of Green. He now says he never got a good look at the assailant who entered through his back door. He says he was high on cocaine at the time of the assault and also high when he testified at Green's trial.

In one of his most damning allegations, he said the lead detective on the case pointed to Green's photograph during the identification in an attempt to get him to pick Green out -- and Finley went along with it.

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"I'm not angry with Willie Finley," Green said, reflecting on his time behind bars. "I want to hate him real, real bad, but I can't do it. . . . I refuse to allow what happened to me to eat me up with hatred."

In a jailhouse interview, Green said he spent the night of the killing stranded with a friend in the San Fernando Valley without money for a ride home. One of his attorneys said the friend was contacted in prison but could not recall the specific evening and would not cooperate.

Green said he would have given up the name of the shooter to win a reduction in his sentence had he been involved in the killing. Authorities have never identified the man who pulled the trigger.

In prison, Green has married, earned an associates degree and teaches math to fellow inmates. "Numbers don't lie," he said.

At times, he said, he felt hopeless as appeal after appeal was denied. But he said Finley's recantation had renewed his faith that the justice system would set him free.

"That's what put me here," he said. "That's what's going to get me out."

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In November, three of the original witnesses in Green's trial returned to the county's main criminal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.

Finley's latest story was bolstered by testimony from Austin, the neighbor, who said she was shown photographs of possible suspects by the lead Los Angeles Police Department detective, John Bunch, weeks after the murder.

Bunch, she said, pointed to a photo of Green and told her of the assault on Walker involving Green and his cousin. Austin said she was unable to identify a suspect.

Green's attorneys have criticized other aspects of the investigation, complaining that detectives failed to fully research other suspects or Walker's romance with a notorious drug kingpin.

Bunch, who left the LAPD in 1994 and now works as an investigator for the Ventura County district attorney's office, denied ever influencing an identification. He testified in the hearing that Finley selected Green's photo on his own and that Finley told Bunch he was 80% certain Green was the second intruder.

But the star witness was once again Finley, who explained why he was coming forward after so many years.

"I started thinking about all the years I did in the penitentiary," he said. "And then I started thinking about is there a possible chance that it could have been a mistake."

Just as Green's attorney in 1984 had tried to expose holes in Finley's story, now it was the prosecutor's turn.

"Mr. Finley," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Hyman Sisman, who had interviewed Finley at his house a few months earlier, "you and I have met before, isn't that right?"

"I don't think so," Finley responded.

At times, Finley forgot or seemed confused about dates and events, including when the judge asked whether he had been high when he picked Green from a photo lineup. Finley ultimately said he had been. The prosecutor noted, however, that Finley had been in jail for two weeks at the time of the identification.

Sisman argued that Finley had recanted because he had been pushed by his brother.

"With all due respect, Mr. Willie Finley is not the sharpest knife in the drawer," Sisman told the judge. "He's so self-contradictory and so selective in his memory that quite frankly . . . I don't see how this court can have any belief in anything he says."

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Sitting in the same craftsman-style home where Walker was killed, Finley said he had nothing to gain from coming forward in Green's current case and described it as "just a waste of my time."

He complained of chronic short-term memory problems but accurately recounted details of the killing that are confirmed by police reports. He repeated his account that police helped him identify Green but admitted that details of the identification remained hazy.

Testifying in 1984 seemed like the right thing to do, he said, because police convinced him Green was guilty. He said he doesn't know whether Green is innocent or not.

As for whether Green will be released, Finley said he had done what is right but felt no guilt about the past.

"I have a conscience," Finley said, "but I wouldn't lose a wink of sleep if the man didn't ever get out."

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

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