By Hans Sherrer
Justice:Denied magazine, Issue 27, Winter 2005, page 4
Harold Hall’s prisoner photo
“My name is Harold Hall. I am a thirty-two year old African American and I have been unjustly incarcerated for over 14 years for a crime I did not commit.” 1 Thus began The Coercion of Harold Hall, published in Justice:Denied magazine almost five years ago. Hall continued, “The following is a description of the facts leading to my false conviction and persistent fight for justice.” 2
Hall described in his article that after being psychologically and physically tormented by a tag team of four Los Angeles police detectives during a 17 hour interrogation in September 1985, he gave a false confession to the June 1985 murders of Nola Duncan and her brother David Rainey. Eighteen years old at the time, Hall’s confession materially differed from the separate crime scenes where the two people were found. Hall immediately retracted the confession after the marathon interrogation session was over, asserting it was false and coerced. In Justice:Denied’s story he also described that jailhouse informant Cornelius Lee fabricated both a confession Hall allegedly made to him, and incriminatory handwritten notes allegedly written by Hall.
Five years after the interrogation, in 1990, Hall was tried and convicted of both murders based on his “confession” and Lee’s jailhouse informant testimony and notes. He was sentenced to life in prison. In 1994 the California Court of Appeals ruled there was insufficient evidence to support Hall’s conviction of murdering Rainey, and reversed his conviction. The same Court upheld his conviction of murdering Duncan.
However the prosecution’s case then began to crack: Lee recanted his testimony, and he described how he fabricated the incriminating notes that he had alleged were written by Hall. In September 1994 Hall filed a state habeas corpus petition based on the new evidence of Lee’s recantation. During an evidentiary hearing, prosecution and defense experts independently confirmed Lee’s admission that he falsified the notes. Hall’s conviction of murdering Duncan was vacated and he was granted a new trial by his trial judge. However on July 23, 1996 the California Court of Appeals reinstated the conviction, and Hall was subsequently re-sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, plus one year.
During the course of appealing his case Hall had sought court ordered DNA testing of blood, semen and hair evidence that he claimed would exclude him as Duncan’s murder. However, his request was denied.
After his state appeals were exhausted, Hall filed a federal habeas corpus petition that was denied by a U.S. District Court judge on April 10, 2002. Hall appealed that ruling to the Federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Since only alleged violations of the federal constitution can be raised in federal court, Hall’s key claim for relief was that in convicting him of Duncan’s murder, the jury relied on the fake evidence of Lee’s falsified notes. The 9th Circuit noted in its decision of September 8, 2003, “Hall does argue that to allow his conviction to stand, based on the present knowledge that the evidence was falsified, is a violation of his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.” 3 The 9th Circuit reversed the District Court judge’s decision, and granted his writ of habeas corpus. In concluding its lengthy opinion, the Court wrote:
“There was absolutely no physical or forensic evidence connecting Hall to the body or the alley in which it was found. The only other evidence of Hall’s guilt was his curious and largely uncorroborated confession, which was shown to contain multiple inconsistencies and inaccuracies. For the most part, the confession did not match the evidence of the crime, and the descriptions of the position and location of the body were public knowledge. Once Hall’s statements were shown to contain multiple discrepancies, the jailhouse notes took on added importance.
Recognizing this, in closing argument, the prosecutor urged the jury to rely on the notes as corroborating evidence of Hall’s guilt. In responding to the defense attacks on Hall's confession, the prosecutor stated, “you have a handwritten note by the defendant, which the defense didn't try to explain, where he also admits liability.” The prosecution used Lee's notes to corroborate Hall’s confession, but the jury never had the opportunity to hear Lee testify and to assess his demeanor and veracity.
This is precisely why the state trial judge (who had presided over the original trial) concluded that the notes were material to the jury’s decision. There is a reasonable likelihood that the introduction of the falsified notes affected the jury's verdict in this case. Giglio, 405 U.S. at 154. We have no confidence in the verdict under these circumstances. Kyles, 514 U.S. at 434. In light of the already scant evidence on which the conviction was based, and the emphasis the notes thus took on at the original trial, it was unreasonable for the California Court of Appeal to conclude otherwise.
Because false and material evidence was admitted at Hall’s trial in violation of his due process rights, we REVERSE the judgment of the district court with instructions that it should issue an unconditional writ of habeas corpus unless the state court grants Hall a new trial within 120 days of the issuance of this court's mandate. 4
On August 20, 2004 - almost a year after Hall’s conviction was reversed - the Los Angeles District Attorney decided he would not be retried. After a motion was granted to dismiss the charge of murdering Nola Duncan, Hall was released later that day after 19 years of wrongful imprisonment.
It is noteworthy that in its September 2003 decision reversing Hall’s conviction, the 9th Circuit confirmed his portrayal - that was published in Justice:Denied three years earlier - of the events surrounding his conviction and the reasons it was unsound.
After Hall’s release, his attorney William Genego said, “Harold is an extraordinary individual. He had the wherewithal to continue on. It took a long, long time.” 5 During his periods of time without an attorney, Hall was relentless in researching his case, and filing and responding to motions. As he described his efforts, “I just had to stay focused to prove my case. I knew it was gonna come. It was just a matter of time.” 6
Imprisoned at 18, and having spent more than half his life wrongly confined behind bars, Hall was philosophical about his experience, “What they took from me, I can’t get back. The thing is to move forward, to enjoy what I have now.” 7
Five years earlier Harold Hall closed his Justice:Denied story by writing, “There are several lawyers, private investigators and community people who have freely donated their time and energy to support my efforts. Without them, I know I would not have made it this far. I only hope and pray that I will soon be able to personally thank them from outside these jail walls, which have kept my body, but not my spirit, captive for the past 14 years.” 8 It was a long time coming, but after his release he was able to make good on that vow.
1 The Coercion of Harold Hall, Harold Hall, Justice:Denied, Vol. 1, Issue 9 (2000), http://justicedenied.org/v1issue9.htm
3 Hall vs. Director of Corrections, 343 F3d 976 (9th Cir. 09-08-2003), 2003.C09.0000667 ¶ 50 <http://www.versuslaw.com>.
4Hall, 343 F3d 976, 2003.C09.0000667 ¶¶ 68-71 <http://www.versuslaw.com> (emphasis added).
5Patience, Resolve Fueled Man on His Long Road to Freedom, Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2004.
8 The Coercion of Harold Hall, supra.