He spent 14 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit.
A Los Angeles man who was wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a 1994 murder and attempted robbery in South Los Angeles is a free man today.
Los Angeles based California Innocence Project, which helped get him released, says Reggie Deshawn Cole had been in prison for 14 years.
On March 27, 1994, Felipe Angeles was murdered during a robbery in South Los Angeles. Largely based on the false statement of an alleged eyewitness, Los Angeles police arrested Cole, who was found guilty and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He maintained his innocence throughout his trial and incarceration, according to the California Innocence Project, based at California Western School of Law in San Diego.
About six years after Angeles’ death, while Cole was at Calipatria State Prison, fellow inmate and convicted murderer Eddie “El Diablo” Eugene Clark plotted to murder him. On Nov. 28, 2000, Clark attacked Cole, and in self-defense, Cole stabbed Clark with Clark’s own shank, according to the Innocence Project.
Because Cole was incarcerated at the time of Clark’s killing, he faced the death penalty. Los Angeles attorney Christopher Plourd was assigned to represent Cole.
“After hearing Reggie Cole’s story, I walked out of the prison with a gut feeling that Cole killed Clark in a desperate `kill or be killed’ situation, and that he was innocent of the Los Angeles County murder that sent him to prison,” Plourd said.
Plourd uncovered exculpatory evidence, including the fact that the only witness who identified Cole at the crime scene fabricated his testimony. There was also evidence that the same witness may have actually been the shooter. Furthermore, none of the forensic evidence at the crime scene, including DNA and fingerprints, implicated Cole.
“The Cole case became more than just another impossible death penalty case,” said Plourd. “I not only had to save Cole from the death penalty, I needed to find a way to right the wrong of the justice system that sent him to prison for a crime he did not commit.”
Plourd enlisted the help of attorneys with the California Innocence Project to strike the initial murder conviction, eliminating the possibility of the death penalty.
In January of last year, the California Innocence Project filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Superior Court of Los Angeles in an effort to get Cole’s conviction overturned. The petition alleged that Cole received ineffective counsel and that prosecutors withheld key evidence and knowingly introduced false evidence at trial.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney conceded that Cole received ineffective counsel, and on April 15, 2009, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jerry E. Johnson vacated the Angeles murder conviction. Prosecutors formally dropped all charges against Cole on July 2, 2009, nearly 14 years after he was wrongfully convicted.
Cole subsequently pleaded no contest to manslaughter for the prison killing. At his sentencing, Plourd and Justin Brooks, professor of law at California Western and co-director of the California Innocence Project, argued that Cole’s sentence should be time served for the wrongful conviction.
One week after Cole’s exoneration of the murder of Felipe Angeles, the Imperial County District Attorney’s Office filed new charges against him, claiming that while incarcerated, he concealed a razor blade in his cell mattress. Suspecting that the charges were retaliation by prosecutors and a ploy to keep Cole incarcerated for another eight years, the maximum sentence for the charge, Plourd and attorney Alissa Bjerkhoel of the California Innocence Project investigated the case and found that DNA evidence excluded Cole as a possible contributor.
A confession from the inmate housed in the cell next to Cole fully exonerated him, but the district attorney continued to prosecute the case. In a December 2009 trial, Imperial County Superior Court Judge Christopher Yeager found that the prosecution’s evidence was insufficient to sustain a conviction and acquitted Cole.
On Jan. 21, Yeager granted Cole’s petition for a finding of factual innocence, a ruling that prosecutors are currently appealing.
“Reggie’s case is another example of a shoddy investigation leading to a wrongful conviction,” Brooks said. “I’m grateful that he is released, but there are many more people still in prison who have suffered the same injustice.”
Cole was released late Saturday, more than a month after he was denied release from prison on April 6.
The denial of Cole’s originally scheduled release was based on claims by the California Department of Corrections that his release date was miscalculated, despite confirming with the California Innocence Project multiple times that April 6 was the day he would rejoin his family and society.