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staff reporter “in four minutes and 44 seconds, something horrible happened, and the question is why.” That’s how attorney Michael Steinberg described the encounter in 1994 in which his client Bruce Lee Sons shot and killed a California highway patrolman. Now, after nearly nine years in prison, Sons has won a new trial. A California federal court vacated his conviction because of a chance discovery of exculpatory evidence of complaints about the officer’s past behavior. The fatal event happened on July 11, 1994. Highway Patrol Officer Richard Maxwell spotted and followed Sons, who was driving a truck that matched the description of one that had been stolen. With Sons was his 16-year-old stepson. Maxwell followed Sons into the driveway of Sons’ father’s home in Bakersfield, Calif. Sons and Maxwell argued, then fought, according to court records. Maxwell held Sons over the hood of his cruiser, then sprayed him with a disabling chemical when he resisted. What happened next is the crux of the case. Both Sons and his stepson were armed, according to the records. Maxwell fired 12 rounds. Sons fired three, fatally wounding Maxwell. Convicted of murder, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Steinberg, who was not the trial counsel, said that he learned of the case from an associate who had been approached by a friend of Sons. He and the associate, Robert Sacks, did the appeal pro bono. Now partners at New York’s Sullivan & Cromwell’s Los Angeles office, the attorneys faced one of the most grueling challenges of their careers, he said, requiring thousands of hours of work and the help of more than 70 associates over eight years. Self-defense claim The critical issues at trial were who fired first and whether Sons had acted in self-defense as a result of Maxwell’s alleged use of excessive force. Sons’ self-defense claim had to survive state law, which does not give citizens a right to resist an officer whose actions are within the scope of his duties. Sons’ defense was that Maxwell fired before he posed a threat, Steinberg said. Police experts testified that it was likely that Maxwell conducted himself reasonably given his training. Prosecutor Stephen M. Tauzer told the jury that there was no evidence that Maxwell was the aggressor and referred to the officer’s unblemished record. Without any hard evidence to counter the state’s claim, Sons was convicted. People v. Sons, No. 59195A (Kern Co., Calif., State Ct.). In Bakersfield, examining trial exhibits, Steinberg discovered a sealed envelope whose contents had not been introduced. He got a court order, opened it and found a summary of Maxwell’s personnel records that the Highway Patrol had prepared. It included references to citizen complaints about Maxwell’s aggressive behavior. The discovery put the entire trial “in an entirely different perspective,” said Steinberg. He argued on appeal that the state’s closing statement was knowingly false and misleading and that suppression of the file amounted to federal constitutional error. The state said that Sons’ defense counsel had received a list of people who had complained about Maxwell and should have pressed harder for information about his past, said Hallie Jordan, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer. California’s Fifth District Court of Appeal upheld the conviction, reasoning that the information would not have changed the outcome of the original trial, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 refused to hear the case. Defense break However, a federal district court granted a petition for writ of habeas corpus this year, giving the defense its first break. On May 31, both parties signed a settlement agreement in which the prosecution acknowledged that Sons’ right to exculpatory evidence that the prosecution knew about had been violated. Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). On June 2, the court vacated Sons’ conviction. The attorney general plans to retry the case, Jordan said. Song’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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