A California Court of Appeal overturned the cold case conviction of Darrell Booth 36 days after OC Weekly exclusively featured the inmate’s plight in “Did Orange County’s Justice System Imprison an Innocent Man for Murder?”
Calling prosecutor Mark Geller’s case “weak,” a three-justice panel determined Booth didn’t receive a fair trial in 2011 for a 1992 killing at a Santa Ana 7-Eleven parking lot based largely on the impact of the government’s 19-year delay in filing charges.
That delay led to the trial unavailability of Ellis Bradford, a crucial eyewitness who identified four assailants at the shooting but specifically exonerated Booth as a participant.
In its Oct. 12 ruling, a three-justice appellate panel—William Bedsworth, Kathleen O’Leary and Eileen Moore—said Early Hawkins, Booth’s attorney, provided ineffective counsel by failing to seek pre-trial dismissal of the case because the exclusion of Bradford’s testimony violated the defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial.
“By the time Booth was charged and the case was set for trial, Bradford—an eyewitness who told the police Booth was not among the group of men that carried out the shooting—could not be found and was thus unavailable to testify on Booth’s behalf,” the justices observed.
Geller had argued he would have attacked Bradford’s credibility if he’d testified and, therefore, his absence actually favored the defense.
The justices didn’t buy the prosecutor’s ridiculous claim, noting Bradford “had the potential to be a blockbuster for the defense.”
“It is reasonable to conclude Booth was substantially and materially prejudiced by Bradford’s absence at his trial,” they wrote in the 36-page opinion. “The prosecution’s case against Booth was simply not very strong.”
Santa Ana Police Department detective Dave Rondou boasted of solving the cold case by convincing Tommy Haslip, a man Bradford identified as one of the assailants, to name Booth as a participant in exchange for a sweetheart deal that shaved decades off his own prison sentence.
No DNA or forensic evidence tied Booth to the crime scene. In fact, several witnesses claimed he’d been in Riverside County at the time of the shooting.
To protect the defendant’s due process and constitutional rights, the justices ordered that if Tony Rackauckas’ Orange County district attorney’s office retries the case, jurors this time must hear Bradford’s audio recorded statement to police detectives.
Booth, 52, has been serving a punishment of 15 years to life inside the California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi.
His family and his appellate attorney, Suzanne Wrubel, are elated by developments.
“We’re grateful the court took such a careful look at this case and recognized that an injustice had been done,” said Wrubel.