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SAN JOSE — Rick Reinhardt and Jonald Diolula each spent months locked away in Santa Clara County jail for murders that, it turns out, they did not commit. These discoveries — revealed just days after Reinhardt filed a suit against the county in federal court seeking damages for the 10 months he spent behind bars — have some wondering whether prosecutors within the district attorney’s office are “overzealous” in pursuing murder charges. Santa Clara Assistant District Attorney David Tomkins said it’s not often that these mistakes happen, but when they do, the DA’s office, is “always ready to listen” to contradicting evidence. “We are all human beings. We are not infallible,” Tomkins said. “These types of things are bound to happen.” Asked whether it is common for the DA to dismiss murder charges, Santa Clara Public Defender Mary Greenwood said it doesn’t happen every day, but “two homicides in a row, that’s slightly unusual.” Two other men wrongly convicted of murder in Santa Clara County were released from custody in 2003. A federal judge ordered the release of Glen “Buddy” Nickerson after he’d spent 19 years in prison, and that same year the DA concluded that Quedillas “Rick” Walker had been mistakenly imprisoned for 12 years. Reinhardt’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Melinda Hall, said she knew her client was innocent of the 2004 shooting death of a San Jose man shortly after meeting him the first time. “From the beginning, I told the DA, ‘You got the wrong guy,’” Hall said, adding that Reinhardt’s statement to her was “extremely convincing.” But the evidence stacked against her client was damaging: A pistol and keys to the murder victim’s house were found hidden in Reinhardt’s Redwood City home. It took Hall months of pleading before she could convince prosecutors that Reinhardt was framed for the murder. Another man eventually confessed to the murder, and charges against Reinhardt were dropped last December. With Diolula, it was a different story. The 26-year-old mentally ill man abruptly walked into the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department in March and confessed to an unsolved 1998 San Jose murder. It didn’t take defense attorneys long to figure out that Diolula had lied to officers. “There was very little evidence against him, except for his confession,” said Alternate Defender David Epps. “We had such clear evidence that he was not guilty in this case.” After Diolula returned from a state hospital for evaluation in July, Santa Clara Deputy Alternate Defender Michele Diederichs was assigned to represent him. She took one look at the police reports and realized her client couldn’t have committed the San Jose murder he was charged with because he was working at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Francisco that day. Diederichs revealed her findings to Tomkins on Wednesday, who agreed that it appeared that the wrong man was in custody. Tomkins told Diederichs that the DA would take a second look at her evidence. Diederichs said she hopes to have Diolula, who’s been in custody since March, out of jail by the end of the weekend. John Vegas, an investigator with the alternate defender’s office who was in charge of the Diolula case, said he feels there are some deputies in Kennedy’s office who are “overzealous” when it comes to murder charges. “The reality is, you’re guilty until you can prove yourself innocent,” Vegas said. “That is so sad.” Epps said he’s not sure whether the responsibility lies with DA George Kennedy’s office or the police, who were first assigned to investigate the case. “The DA basically takes what the police give them,” Epps said. “There’s usually not a lot of follow-up.” San Jose police Sgt. Nick Muyo, however, was quick to deflect criticism from his department. “These are two extreme cases with extreme conditions,” Muyo said. “These aren’t cases where the police dropped the ball.” Muyo declined to comment on the Reinhardt case, citing the federal lawsuit against San Jose. In regards to Diolula, Muyo said officers did a thorough investigation before presenting their facts to the DA. “Officers aren’t going to take a suspect at his word,” Muyo said. “We aren’t going to slap cuffs on him” simply because he confesses. Still, something clearly went wrong. Diolula spent nine months in jail before his attorney convinced the DA to take a second look at evidence pointing to his innocence. This “really speaks to the important role that the public defender plays,” said San Francisco PD Jeff Adachi. “I’ve certainly seen my share of cases where the client is innocent. … It is a sad reality of the American justice system.” Adachi questions why Reinhardt and Diolula spent so long in prison. Someone should be held accountable for the time those men lost, Adachi said, adding that perhaps Kennedy should examine how his prosecutors handled the cases. “There has never been a prosecutor who has been disbarred” over something like this, Adachi said, but these mistakes should carry some sort of disciplinary action. Just because the evidence clearly points to a client’s innocence, it “doesn’t mean that when you bring it to the district attorney, they will do the right thing,” Adachi said. “It depends on who the DA is.”

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