Daniel Larsen: Innocent, but still in prison

Share via

Daniel Larsen is the victim of a continuing injustice. Despite a finding by two federal judges that no juror who heard all the evidence in his criminal trial would ever have convicted him and despite an order that he be set free as a result, he remains in custody. That is a violation of his most basic rights. There is, however, a way to correct this wrong: Gov. Jerry Brown should pardon him.

Larsen was at the Golden Apple bar in Northridge about 1 a.m. on June 6, 1998. There was a fight and police responded. When they arrived, they saw a man toss an object under a car. They recovered a knife and identified Larsen as the man who had thrown it aside. Larsen was arrested and ultimately convicted of possessing the weapon. Because of two prior, nonviolent convictions, Larsen’s “third strike” had grave implications: He was sentenced to 28 years to life.

But Larsen’s trial was hindered by his extraordinarily ineffective defense. The lawyer, since disbarred, called no witnesses and made no effort to determine whether others at the scene would corroborate the police account. Had he, the outcome might well have been different, as three witnesses, one a former police officer, later testified to seeing another man with the knife. Indeed, that same man submitted a declaration that pretty much seals the deal: “I know that the knife was not [Larsen’s] because it was mine.”


A federal magistrate reviewed those facts and determined that Larsen deserved to have his conviction overturned because his lawyer was inadequate. And though the deadline had passed for filing such an appeal, the magistrate concluded that Larsen should be allowed to do so because he had demonstrated his innocence. “Had the jury heard the exculpatory testimony,” she wrote, “no reasonable juror would have found [Larsen] guilty.” The magistrate’s recommendations were reviewed and upheld by a second federal judge in 2009.

Yet the California attorney general’s office objected to releasing Larsen, and he remains behind bars while the fight over his release is appealed. The attorney general has a legitimate need for deadlines — endless appeals clog the criminal justice system — but it is exceptionally rare for a federal judge to conclude that an inmate is “actually innocent.” Under these circumstances, Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris would be wise to back off and let Larsen go.

If she does not, this case calls out for the pardon. Vindicating the innocent is the executive pardon’s highest purpose. Using it here would restore an innocent man’s liberty and spare the state further expense and the possibility of a burdensome legal precedent. Brown should act now, and bring an end to the shocking and ongoing deprivation of Daniel Larsen’s rights.