C.J. Ford's P.I. Talents Helped an Innocent Man Escape a Death Sentence

C.J. Ford's P.I. Talents Helped an Innocent Man Escape a Death Sentence
Shane Lopes

"One of my skills is that I can find people who don't want to be found," says veteran Orange County private investigator C.J. Ford as he relates a comical story from the 1980s. On the hunt for a bail-bond cheater, Ford studied the man's file and learned of a fondness for the Grateful Dead. He bought three tickets to the band's upcoming concert, kept one for himself and, posing as a Southern California radio station free-prize distributor, mailed the other two tickets to the target.

Recalls Ford, "We sat next to each other—me, him and his girlfriend—watched the show, and when he went to the bathroom, I followed, cuffed him and took him away."

He laughs, saying, "To this day, that girl may not know what happened. She probably thinks he dumped her there!"

There's no hilarity in Ford's most recent mission—a crusade, really. For a decade, he has pursued the impossible: getting a condemned man, Kenneth Clair, off California's death row inside San Quentin State Prison and released back into society. There are, of course, far less challenging propositions a person could choose, but the relentless Ford, a Pennsylvania native whose family moved to Anaheim in the 1960s, has achieved half his goal.

Once-hidden trial hanky-panky exposed post-conviction by this Santa Ana-based PI helped to set the stage last year for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to block Clair's scheduled state execution. Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals is currently considering a prosecution motion to give Clair a reduced sentence of life in prison without the possibility for parole. In opposition, a defense lawyer is asking Goethals to erase special-circumstances findings in Clair's 1987 conviction, a move that could make the 56-year-old inmate, incarcerated for 28 years, finally eligible for parole. But Ford has a third position.

"Kenneth Clair is innocent, absolutely innocent," an exasperated Ford said during a February interview. "He should be out [of prison] now."

Weekly readers know that Clair, a dark-skinned black man, was convicted of killing a Caucasian woman in Santa Ana in 1984 even though the main eyewitness to the crime, a white kid, told police the killer shared his skin color and no physical evidence tied Clair to the crime scene. In 2008, a shocking development occurred because of advances in forensic science. DNA recovered from the victim's vaginal area and presumed by police to belong to Clair, whom they'd accused of attempting to rape the woman, was determined to have no link to the man convicted of the crime. But Tony Rackauckas' Orange County district attorney's office refuses to share the identity of the DNA link with the defense, declaring there's still no valid reason to doubt the righteousness of the case.

Such rhetoric causes Ford to shake his head in angry disbelief. "This doesn't always happen, but a white guy said a white guy did it, and somehow a black guy got arrested and sent to prison," the PI observes.

Late last year, Ford launched a nationwide petition drive highlighting the alarming situation and demanding a fair resolution. More than a whopping 165,000 people have signed in support. "I have to keep people focused on the facts," he says. "The Clair case doesn't make any sense at all. People who've learned what happened say they can't understand why this man is still in jail."

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