In 1979, Brenda Anderson testified that a young man with whom she had gone to high school shot her elderly neighbor to death.
Thirty-four years later, Anderson's sister Sharon took the stand and said the account, which helped send the young man to prison, was a lie.
On Thursday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge sided with Sharon Anderson and threw out the conviction of Kash Delano Register, who maintained his innocence during more than three decades as inmate No. C11693.
Judge Katherine Mader's ruling eviscerated the case against Register, 53, who was convicted mainly on eyewitness testimony that his attorneys say was false. They also said police and prosecutors suppressed evidence that would have helped Register's defense, accusations that Mader found credible.
When Mader announced her decision, Register puckered his face as if holding back tears, dropped his head to the table and trembled. His mother, Wilma, heaved with sobs.
"Thank you Lord Jesus for giving me my child back," she cried, as she hugged attorneys from Loyola Law School's Project for the Innocent who represented her son.
Register's attorneys expect him to be released soon. Los Angeles County prosecutors said they would decide by next month whether to appeal her decision or retry him.
Prosecutors had argued that about 12:30 p.m. on April 6, 1979, Register shot Jack Sasson five times in the carport of his West Los Angeles home. Sasson, 78, died three weeks later.
At trial, the physical evidence against Register was scant, court papers said. None of the seven fingerprints found on Sasson's car matched Register's. Police never recovered the murder weapon.
They did seize a pair of pinstriped pants from Register's closet, which had a speck of blood smaller than a pencil eraser. But it was of little value — the blood type, O, matched Sasson and Register.
Instead, the prosecution relied on eyewitness testimony, notably that of Brenda Anderson. Then 19, Anderson said she was at home when she heard gunfire, looked out the window and saw an African American man sprinting from the Sassons' carport, court papers said. She identified him as Register, though Register's girlfriend testified that he was with her at the time of the shooting.
Register was convicted and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison. Each time he appeared before the parole board, he refused to admit guilt.
"It appears that the only reason that I have been consistently denied parole is because I have maintained my innocence," he once told the board, court papers said.
Register might have remained behind bars, his attorneys said, if not for a stroke of luck. In late 2011, another of Brenda Anderson's sisters, Sheila Vanderkam, found a website that locates convicted felons. "I typed in the name Kash Register out of curiosity," she said in a declaration, "and learned, to my horror, that Mr. Register was still in prison."
When Vanderkam tracked down Register's attorney, she shared some astonishing news. Brenda Anderson's account was a lie, Vanderkam said, something she and Sharon Anderson had tried to tell police in 1979.
According to Vanderkam, at the time of the shooting, her sisters had just hidden a package of Avon products they had stolen from a neighbor. Sharon Anderson said they heard gunfire, but weren't close enough to get a good look at the shooter.
Vanderkam worked at the same LAPD station as the detectives investigating the shooting. She said she tried to tell one of them that Brenda Anderson had lied.
"The detective placed his finger over his mouth (like a shush sound) and just stared at me," she said in her declaration. "He made it very clear to me, without actually saying anything, that I was to stay out of it."
Sharon Anderson also told police that they had they wrong man, she said in court papers. After the shooting, police showed her six photographs, including one of Register.
"Your sister, Brenda Anderson, said it's him — this one, right here," Sharon Anderson recalled them saying, according to court papers.
She said she replied: "Well, it's not the same guy I seen."
Police threatened to lock her up for the stolen Avon package, she said. She didn't waver.
Police and prosecutors never disclosed what Sharon Anderson said to the defense, Register's attorneys said. She did not testify during his trial.
But during a hearing last month, she told her story — sometimes through tears — in Mader's courtroom. Mader said she found Sharon Anderson more credible than Brenda Anderson, who repeatedly changed her account.
She also refused to be sworn in at the hearing or to spell her name, said Lara Bazelon, Project for the Innocent director. At one point, she bared her teeth. A prosecutor called her "one of the worst witnesses I've ever seen," though he argued that didn't mean she was dishonest in 1979.
But in Mader's view, Brenda Anderson seemed to recant what she said at that long-ago trial. When asked in court last month whether Register had been the shooter, she replied: "It may or may not have been that person."