Andrew Wilson walked out of a Los Angeles jail on March 16 a free man, having served 32 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
A day earlier, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge overturned Wilson’s conviction and vacated his sentence after finding that his trial was riddled with errors. Wilson, 62, had been found guilty of robbing and stabbing a 21-year-old man in 1984.
Surrounding Wilson as he addressed reporters outside the jail were elated family members and the attorneys and law students from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles’ Project for the Innocent, which fought for nearly two years to prove his innocence.
Wilson’s case came to the clinic in late 2015 through a referral from a federal prosecutor with concerns about the practices of the detective who investigated Wilson’s case. The clinic hit the jackpot the following year when a judge ordered the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office to turn over the original case files. Those files revealed a litany of errors by the prosecution and police. Among them: The investigating detective directed the sole eyewitness to identify Wilson as the murderer, and that sole eyewitness—the victim’s girlfriend—was not credible.
The girlfriend had previously filed a false police report accusing a man of kidnapping and rape, and one of the victim’s friends contacted prosecutors to suggest that the girlfriend was the likely culprit. She had previously stabbed her boyfriend and had a drug problem, the friend told prosecutors. None of that information was turned over to the defense at the time.
The clinic plans to head back to court in May to seek a finding of Wilson’s actual innocence, a determination that will make him eligible for compensation from the state.
We caught up with three members of Wilson’s legal team to discuss the steps involved in working on a wrongful conviction case and how it felt to see their client leave prison.
Step 1: Taking the Case
Paula Mitchell, director of the Loyola’s Project for the Innocent: We did an attorney phone call with [Wilson] before we met him. You develop an ear for these things over time. He said things like, “This whole ordeal has been a nightmare for my family. This detective did things that are just not right.” He said, “You may not always like what I tell you, but I will never lie to you.” There was a maturity there, and it had a real ring of truth to it.
Jacquelyn Rembis, 2016 Loyola Law School graduate and former innocence clinic student: I think the moment you feel most invested is right after you meet your client—when you actually sit down with a man who is clearly a very strong individual for being able to survive this. The moment you look into their eyes and introduce yourself, it changes everything.
Alexa Horner, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles 2L who worked in the clinic: Seeing a case like this just absolutely astonished me. Most people don’t even know things like this can happen, let alone multiple errors and multiple factual issues.
Step 2: The investigation
Mitchell: As soon as I saw all that evidence [from the district attorney’s original file], I knew we were going to get him out. What shocked me the most was a note in the prosecutor’s file, in the prosecutor’s own handwriting, saying the victim’s best friend had called her and said, “I think the girlfriend did it. She’s attacked him with a knife in the past. One time she stabbed him 40 times. She was on PCP.”
Rembis: It felt like every time some new evidence was produced to us, it was appalling. Andrew had been saying it to us from the moment we met him. To finally see it with your own eyes and to hold it in your own hands is a stunning moment. It’s really great news for us and Mr. Wilson, but it’s also devastating that it has been there this whole time. It’s a mix of emotions.
Step 3: The Hearing
Rembis: It was difficult to know for two years we were able to go home and lay in bed while he was laying in prison on a cold bed. You want it to move faster, but habeas work isn’t expeditious. It takes a long time. There are a lot of nights where you just have to hope for the best. You don’t know how a hearing is going to go. At the end of the day, we can’t guarantee anything. It’s scary.
Mitchell: It’s hard to describe. It’s so big. It’s so much. A couple of words are exchanged [in court], and the life he’s been living for 32 years and the fight he’s been fighting for 32 years is over in just a few seconds. It really takes time to process. Part of that is because our job is to manage our client’s expectations. We can’t get their hopes up.
That was a very difficult 24 hours. It’s very strange to have the court say, “You didn’t get a fair trial, your conviction is reversed. Now go back to jail.” That happens more often as not, and they’ll tell you it’s because they have to process paperwork.
Step 4: Freedom
Horner: It was so emotional. I’ll forever remember that moment—taking his first steps, hugging his family, meeting his granddaughter for the first time. Seeing those moments, for all the students, showed us the impact we can have. It meant everything to me.
Rembis: Probably the best moment of my life was watching him walk out of those doors as a free man.
Mitchell: It was pretty overwhelming. He’s a really nice man, who’s very humble and sweet. I’ve gotten attached to his family. Seeing them all together is a moment I’ll never forget. Giving someone their freedom after 32 years—when they should have never been prosecuted in the first place—the feeling is difficult to describe.
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ.