A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Friday overturned the murder conviction of a man who has spent 17 years behind bars for a killing outside a South L.A. brothel — a slaying that was prominently featured in a book about two LAPD homicide detectives.
The judge ordered that Obie Anthony, 37, be released from prison after concluding that the prosecution's key witness, a pimp, lied to the jury. The witness has since admitted he never clearly saw the gunman at the scene of the crime.
"When someone gets killed at a brothel, your witnesses aren't going to be priests and nuns," prosecutor Scott Collins said before Friday's hearing.
Judge Kelvin D. Filer harshly criticized the prosecutors who handled the 1995 murder trial for failing to disclose to the jury that they had made a deal with the witness, John Jones, agreeing to seek a light sentence on pimping and pandering charges in exchange for his testimony against Anthony and a co-defendant, Reggie Cole.
Cole, who won release months ago after another judge overturned his murder conviction on similar grounds, leaped to his feet in the Compton courtroom and shouted "Yeah!" when it became clear Filer was about to free Anthony. "I'm overwhelmed, man, it's been a long time coming," he said after the ruling.
As witnesses in the packed gallery stood and hugged at the end of the hearing, Anthony's older sister, Yolanda Taylor, sat doubled over in her chair, moaning "Thank you Jesus" between loud sobs.
Filer ordered Anthony released on his own recognizance but he will probably remain in a county jail over the weekend waiting for prison officials to process his paperwork. Prosecutors have 60 days to decide whether to retry him on the murder charge.
Collins, who could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon, said Thursday that his department was prepared to retry Anthony. No such decision has been announced.
Seth Flagsberg, an attorney for the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law, which handled Anthony's appeal, said he thought it was unlikely that prosecutors would retry his client because they have no credible witnesses in the case.
Anthony's journey toward freedom began, improbably, when Cole stabbed a fellow inmate to death at Calipatria State Prison in 2000.
Cole, who said he was acting in self-defense, was convicted of manslaughter for the prison slaying. That put him at risk for the death penalty because he already had a murder conviction on his record.
That, in turn, attracted the attention of attorneys for the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law, who determined that the key witness against Anthony and Cole in 1995 had fabricated his testimony.
First they convinced an Imperial County judge to disregard the prior murder conviction while determining Cole's sentence for the prison stabbing. Then they convinced a Los Angeles County judge to overturn Cole's 1995 murder conviction.
Cole finished serving his manslaughter sentence and has been free since May.
The 1994 murder of a 29-year-old Mexican immigrant was featured prominently in "The Killing Season," a book by former Los Angeles Times reporter Miles Corwin. The story followed two LAPD detectives — one a veteran and the other leading her first homicide investigation.
According to court records, the victim, Felipe Gonzales Angeles, approached the brothel's front door and asked for a woman named Melinda.
Someone told him Melinda was "busy," Collins said. Angry words ensued, in two languages, then shots were fired. Angeles died on the sidewalk. Two of his friends were also shot, but survived.
Neither of the other victims positively identified Anthony or Cole as their attackers, Filer noted Friday. One said Anthony "looked like" the right guy; the other thought the attackers were about a decade older than Anthony and Cole.
Jones, who owned the building, ran the brothel and had previously been convicted of manslaughter for shooting a girlfriend in the head. He is the only person who positively identified Anthony and Cole as the attackers during the trial.
Anthony said he wasn't at the scene and has maintained his innocence throughout his 17-year incarceration.
In a declaration signed two years ago for Anthony's attorneys, Jones conceded that he wasn't sure about Anthony and Cole's roles in the killing. "Although I told police and testified at trial that I had seen two of the men well enough to positively identify them," Jones wrote, "I never clearly focused on their faces, but primarily saw them running away."
He added that he based his identification of the men on descriptions he got from others at the scene — including his two young daughters — and assurances from detectives that others had also identified Cole and Anthony as the gunmen.
In addition, Jones "lied to the jury when he claimed that he had not received special treatment in his pimping and pandering case in exchange for his testimony," Filer said, adding that prosecutors "never corrected this misinformation about John Jones' deal."
Jones could not be reached for comment Friday.
Before the hearing, Collins insisted that prosecutors had not misled the jury. "It was not a deal in exchange for testimony. It was simply a thank-you for cooperating with the LAPD in a homicide investigation," he said.