From his small cell on California’s death row, Scott Pinholster swore he could prove his innocence. The proof, he said, was in the dried blood on a work boot and a pink towel recovered from his home years ago.
The condemned inmate insisted that modern DNA testing — nonexistent when he was convicted of a double murder in 1984 — would show the blood belonged to him, not the victims, as the prosecution argued at his trial.
But a recent search for the items has led to a disturbing discovery that could throw the case into jeopardy: The Los Angeles County courts mistakenly destroyed the evidence.
A judge must now determine what, if anything, should be done to remedy the high-stakes error.
Pinholster’s attorney has asked for a hearing on how the destruction happened and says he will eventually ask for a new trial. Prosecutors, however, argue that a killer’s life shouldn’t be spared simply because of an innocent mistake by court staff.
“Oh my God!” said the juror, who spoke on condition of anonymity, when recently contacted by The Times. “He’s liable to get off then?”
Pinholster is one of 744 people awaiting execution in California — the largest death row population in the country. Although the state hasn’t put anyone to death since 2006, that could soon change, as voters passed a measure last year to speed up the process. Of the state’s condemned inmates, about 20 have exhausted their appeals, putting them at the front of the line. Among them is Pinholster.
California law requires that courts keep evidence until after a death row inmate is executed or dies behind bars — a safeguard put in place to preserve evidence for future testing. Mary Hearn, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Superior Court, said the court’s procedure for destroying evidence, which was updated last year, now requires that staff first contact California’s Supreme Court to confirm a death row inmate has died. The court, Hearn said, began a review of its procedure before learning of Pinholster’s case.
Hearn said Pinholster, 58, is the only known example of evidence destruction in a case of a living death row inmate convicted in L.A. County. But a small number of cases around the country have raised similar legal problems.
On the eve of an execution in 2005, Virginia’s governor reduced a condemned death row inmate’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole after learning that a court clerk had destroyed evidence in his murder case despite being warned by subordinates not to do so. Two years later, a man on death row in Oklahoma was released from prison after a judge ruled that a police lab analyst had intentionally destroyed hair evidence that could have pointed to the inmate’s innocence.
Elisabeth Semel, a UC Berkeley law professor who directs the school’s clinic that defends condemned inmates facing execution, said destruction of physical evidence cripples the ability to examine an inmate’s innocence claim.
“If the very evidence you need is gone … how do you make justice happen for these individuals?” she said, describing the scenario as “terribly, terribly devastating.”
The importance of such tests was highlighted last month when Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned a prisoner who spent 39 years behind bars for the 1978 killing of a young woman and her 4-year-old son in Simi Valley. After the prisoner, Craig Coley, exhausted his appeals years ago, a judge authorized the destruction of the crime-scene evidence. But a cold-case detective recently found the evidence and when tested, it helped clear Coley of the murders.
For Pinholster, prosecutors point to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes it difficult for prisoners to reverse convictions or reduce sentences unless they can show that evidence was destroyed in “bad faith.” In Pinholster’s case, prosecutors argue, the destruction was the result of “at most negligence, incompetency, recklessness,” but not “bad faith.”
At his trial, a prosecutor argued that the blood on the boot and towel found in the defendant’s Van Nuys apartment belonged to at least one of the two victims — Thomas Johnson, 25, and Robert Beckett, 29. The men were stabbed and beaten to death at the Tarzana home of a marijuana dealer on Jan. 9, 1982.
The state’s key witness, Art Corona, told police that he, Pinholster and a third man, Paul Brown, were all armed with buck knives when they barreled into the home looking to steal drugs and cash. Minutes later, Corona said, the two victims showed up. Pinholster attacked the men with a knife, his fists and his feet, Corona said, adding that Brown also stabbed one of the men.
Their loot: $23 and a quarter-ounce of pot.
Pinholster said he had stolen drugs from the home a few hours before the killings but never harmed anyone. When he took the stand, he seemed to revel in his criminal record. Asked for his occupation, he smirked and responded, “a crook,” according to court documents. He also boasted to jurors of having committed hundreds of robberies, but insisted he’d always carried guns, not knives.
He was absolutely guilty. No question.
A Sheriff’s Department criminalist told jurors that he’d tested the right work boot and towel collected from Pinholster’s home and found they came back positive for human blood, but technology at the time couldn’t narrow down whose blood it was. The prosecutor suggested that Pinholster had stepped in a pool of blood at the Tarzana home and used the towel to wipe off the murder weapon.
Neither Pinholster nor his attorney argued at trial that the blood was from him — an omission the district attorney’s office said undercuts his current claim. His new attorney said Pinholster was never asked during the trial who the blood belonged to.
Contacted recently, another juror who asked to be identified only as a 76-year-old woman said she was confident in the verdict.
“He was absolutely guilty,” she said. “No question.”
Even after three decades, she said, she can conjure a haunting memory of an image painted at trial by the prosecutor — Pinholster, wearing boots, kicking in the skull of one of the victims.
After his conviction, state courts rejected appeals from Pinholster, but a federal judge overturned the death sentence in 2003, ruling that his trial counsel had failed to tell jurors about the extent of Pinholster’s mental health problems. In 2011, however, the U.S. Supreme Court restored Pinholster’s death sentence.
But months after having his death penalty restored, the inmate got good news. A judge had finally approved his request to have DNA testing done on the towel and boot. Pinholster contends that the bloodstains came from his repeated intravenous use of heroin.
A Los Angeles police officer was assigned to scour an LAPD storage room for the items in case the court had returned them after the trial. The search came up empty, so officers checked inside another police storage facility. Still nothing. As the hunt stretched into a fourth year, Kennedy grew suspicious. Finally, a prosecutor stepped in to help speed up the process.
“And that,” Kennedy said, with a shake of his head, “is when they finally fessed up.”
Court documents from January 1998 show that People vs. Pinholster was mistakenly listed among more than a dozen cases deemed eligible for evidence destruction. The trial exhibits, records show, were destroyed that summer. Two top Los Angeles County Superior Court officials signed the destruction order — Judge John Reid and Ty Colgrove, an administrator who helped run the court’s criminal operations. Both men have since retired.
Reached for comment, Colgrove said he didn’t recall the case, as he’d signed hundreds of destruction orders over the years, but added that he relied on lower-level employees to properly sort through the cases.
It’s almost like the judiciary is facilitating wrongful executions.
Hearn, the court spokeswoman, said Reid could not comment, as he still sometimes fills in on the bench. In a recently signed declaration, Reid wrote that if he’d known the evidence from a capital case was going to be destroyed, he “would not have signed the order.”
Kennedy, an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School whose work on Pinholster’s case carried over from his days as the federal public defender for the Central District of California, bristled at the rationale.
“It’s almost like the judiciary is facilitating wrongful executions,” he said.
Life on death row has worn on Pinholster. Last year, as California voters weighed two options — speeding up executions or banning the death penalty — Pinholster was quoted in a Times article, expressing apathy.
“After 30 years,” he said, “you don’t care one way or the other.”
But there’s still some hope for his exoneration, Kennedy said, pointing to trial exhibit 29 — a pair of bloodstained jeans also recovered from Pinholster’s home years ago. While court employees have said they presume the jeans are lost or destroyed, they haven’t found any documents showing they were, in fact, discarded.
Kennedy has asked for a special hearing so he can question the court officials who approved the destruction. A judge is expected to rule on that request early next year.
For Michael Kumar, the former marijuana dealer who lived at the home where the killings took place, the mention of Pinholster brings a rush of memories. Although he’d been out of town the weekend of the murders, the pain is still raw over the loss of Johnson, his best friend — a gentle giant who loved to play classical piano. When asked about the possibility of a new trial, Kumar sighed.
“It’s preposterous to me…. It’s completely a joke if this guy says he’s innocent,” said Kumar, 58, who now sells parts for and restores classic cars. “I’m not going to say he doesn’t have the right, because I’m not sure what the technicalities are, but it’s just that — a technicality.”
For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber