A Prisoner's Decades-Long Journey to Freedom
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
In 1985, would-be carjackers shot and killed Vincente Gonzales in Venice, California. Two days later, Timothy Atkins and Ricky Evans were arrested for the murder. Evans was killed in prison before the case came to trial, but Timothy Atkins was eventually convicted. Flash forward to last February - after 23 years in prison, Atkins was exonerated. He's now 39 years old.
Mr. TIMOTHY ATKINS (Falsely Convicted, Murder of Vincente Gonzales): Well, what I wanted. I wanted my life back. So, now that I'm here, you know, I have a lot of work to do.
CHIDEYA: Atkins owes his freedom to the work of the California Innocence Project. The organization takes up the cases of people they believe have been wrongly convicted.
In 2005, law student Wendy Koen and the Innocence Project got a break in Atkins' case. Koen tracked down Denise Powell. It was Powell's testimony that helped convict Atkins, but Koen got Powell to recant her story.
Ms. WENDY KOEN (Lawyer, California Innocence Project): If Timothy wasn't an African-American, he would not have been convicted. If the police had not been improper with Denise Powell in their techniques, he would have not have been convicted.
CHIDEYA: We'll hear more from Wendy Koen and Timothy Atkins in a moment. First, Denise Powell explains why she fingered Atkins and Evans.
Ms. DENISE POWELL (Witness, Vicente Gonzales Murder Trial): They took me down to the station, put me in this room and told me I'm not leaving there until I tell him something. And they scared me, and said that happened with Timmy and Ricky a couple of nights before, that's the only thing that popped into my mind.
Oh, there's pictures, and okay. And I picked him out. They had nothing to do with anything. I lied. I pointed him out, and the police let me go. I wanted to go home, so I lied and I pointed him out. I lied.
CHIDEYA: Timothy, when you were arrested, when they told you - they, the officers told you how they fingered you, what did you think?
Mr. ATKINS: I was in disbelief, because I couldn't believe that somebody would do me like that.
CHIDEYA: When you say you were in disbelief, you were living kind of rough then, weren't you? But that certainly doesn't mean that you were implicated in this crime, but how were you living back then?
Mr. ATKINS: I was a gang member. I was on drugs, but I still would never involve myself in any crimes such as murder or robbery.
CHIDEYA: And Wendy, what did Denise tell police in the courtroom?
Ms. KOEN: Well, she only testified at the preliminary hearing, and what she said was that she was riding in a car with Tim and Ricky, which was true, and that she said that Timothy said we off'ed him. And those three words were her lie. And that was really the only lie, so it was a really easy lie to maintain because it was so simple.
CHIDEYA: What did the prosecutor tell the jury after the guilty verdict that sent Timothy to prison?
Ms. KOEN: Well, the foreman of the jury was crying in the hallway because she didn't know if she really did the right thing. And the prosecutor came up to her and said, don't worry about it. Even if you did the wrong thing, even if this wasn't the right decision, it doesn't matter because Timothy is just a gang banger, and if he didn't do this, he's going to do something like it sooner of later.
CHIDEYA: Timothy, I'm sure it was years before you knew that that had happened in the hallways. Did you feel - if not before going to prison for a crime you didn't commit at least once you were in prison - that people felt your life was disposable?
Mr. ATKINS: Yes, I did. And, you know, in the system, and especially in the justice system, gang members or whatever, I mean, they just throw us away because everybody feel as if, I mean, you in a gang you're a bad person. But a lot of people that's in gangs don't do killings and stuff like that.
I mean, it's - based on the community that's most of us live in, I mean, that's like another family. You find camaraderie in the streets with other people like yourself.
CHIDEYA: Tell me about Ricky and the camaraderie you had and the night that you lost the opportunity to be with him.
Mr. ATKINS: My family and his family have always been good friends. And so in 1985, he came back down to Venice for a couple of days, and he was with me. And we was walking through Venice, you know, going to eat, stuff like that, and he was just hanging out with me. You know, and it was unfortunate what happened.
CHIDEYA: Tell us exactly what happened.
Mr. ATKINS: Well, after we got arrested for this crime, somebody sent word that said that we was telling on somebody that really did it. So because of that, we got jumped. And as a result of that, he ended up dying.
CHIDEYA: You didn't just get jumped, you got jumped in your own cell, and the cell door was left open.
Mr. ATKINS: Correct.
CHIDEYA: Who do you think was responsible for that part of it?
Mr. ATKINS: I mean, where the - the officers had to open the cell gate because the controls to the gate is on a booth where officers are at.
CHIDEYA: Has anyone ever been made accountable for that part of this story?
Mr. ATKINS: No.
CHIDEYA: Wendy, catch me up on how you got on to this trail of this case that had incarcerated a man who didn't commit the crime and then during which another man died, you know, in the whole system.
Ms. KOEN: As a student in the California Innocence Project, I was handed a caseload, and Timothy was my case. So as soon as I got the case, I just started reading the legal documents and materials, decided that, you know, he was definitely an innocent man and started tracking down leads from there, trying to find people from 20 years ago and put things together.
CHIDEYA: What was the first big break you got?
Ms. KOEN: Denise Powell. Denise Powell was GT(ph). If Denise could not be located, if Denise had died, Timothy would still be in prison. He probably would have died in prison because without her testimony at the evidentiary hearing this past year, there's no way that we could have achieved this.
CHIDEYA: How did you find her? I'm sure she wasn't the kind of person who had lived at the same address for years and years. How did you find her?
Ms. KOEN: Yeah. She lived on the street, and was periodically in jail for drug charges. So, I talked to members of Timothy's family. They ran into her occasionally on the street. And I just told them, if you see Denise, call me immediately and give her my phone number. I'll try and get there as quickly as I can. If you find out any place she's staying and let me know, and I just put the word out to as many people as I could.
I went up there a couple of times, talking to people, trying to track her down. And Timothy's sister called me one day and said that Denise has gone back to jail. She's in a rehab center in El Monte, so I immediately drove up there because she was, you know, in one place. She was going to be there for a little while, and I knew that I had her at that point.
CHIDEYA: And you got her in room alone, and here's what she said.
Ms. DENISE POWELL (Witness for Mr. Atkins' Case): On the night of the murder morning, I don't know where it was - keep in mind that I was heavily on cocaine. I was with Tommy H. He picked me up on Broadway to get high. We were riding around in a car looking for cocaine, you know, along our route, whatever - we see Timothy Atkins and Ricky Evans.
They got in the car - I was passenger - they got in the car. The only thing that was said was by Timmy, and he said, did you hear about the Mexican that got shot? I didn't say anything. Tommy said no. That was in the conversation. Nothing else was said. Nothing else was said. We rode around for a couple of blocks, three blocks. We didn't find the cocaine. We stopped. We parked. Tommy - Timmy and Ricky got out of the car, went their way. Tommy and me went our way. That was all that was said in the car. He did not say he off'ed him. That was me making that up. That was my own lie, making that up. I've stated I lied.
CHIDEYA: What was it like for you to listen to Denise confess in a way?
Ms. KOEN: It was amazing, first of all, because of the life she had led. I didn't think that she would be that coherent and be able to remember so much of what happened. And I was very surprised to find, you know, the detail and to find that this had been something that had plagued her for years. She could not forget it. It was a major part of who she was, was this horrible thing that she had done decades ago.
So she had replayed the story in her head so many times, it was engrained in her. And as soon she started talking about it, it was a relief to her and, you know, a little bit of that guilt was lifted. And the whole experience was - I knew at that point, okay, we have something here. This is a person who can go before a judge and be open and honest and tell this story, and she's credible and believable and this is going to work.
CHIDEYA: And, of course, it did work.
Ms. KOEN: Yeah.
CHIDEYA: And Timothy, you're a free man again, and you had the guts and courage to see Denise recently. What was that like?
Mr. ATKINS: Well, she approached me when I was in Venice, California, talking to one of my cousins. She walked up to me and apologized to me. And she went her way, and I went mine.
CHIDEYA: And so how do you feel about her as a person? Can you forgive her?
Mr. ATKINS: Well, I'd forgiven her a long time ago. But, you know, a part of me, I feel sorry for her because she's still on drugs and her life is messed up.
CHIDEYA: So what it has been like for you to be at home? I mean, after you've been in a situation for decades, you can get used to it no matter whether or not it's positive or negative. So what is it like now trying to readjust to being back, you know, back at home?
Mr. ATKINS: It has been an experience especially, with my family, trying to reconnect, trying to figure out everybody's attitudes and stuff like that. So it's been an experience.
CHIDEYA: Give me a story.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ATKINS: I don't know if I want to put them on the air like that.
CHIDEYA: You don't want to put them on blast?
Mr. ATKINS: No, I wouldn't do all that. Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ATKINS: They wouldn't forgive me.
CHIDEYA: Well, it just sounds like it's stressful, right?
Mr. ATKINS: I mean, at times. But, I mean, everyday life is stressful at times. So it'll get better.
CHIDEYA: Well, on that note, Timothy and Wendy, thank you so much, and we wish you the best.
Ms. KOEN: Thank you.
Mr. ATKINS: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Timothy Atkins spent 23 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. He owes his freedom to the California Innocence Project and Wendy Koen, who graduated from California Western School of Law last year. You can see a video of Denise Powell admitting she lied under oath at our Web site, npr.org/newsandnotes.