Congratulations to the NBC team in San Jose on your Emmy nomination
When John Stoll walked to freedom last week, it was another reminder of how awful it can be when our justice system screws up. The Bakersfield carpenter spent 20 years in prison after being caught up in the child molestation hysteria of the 1980s.
The prosecution of organized groups of molesters had become a national frenzy, but no place in America was as bad as Bakersfield where authorities encouraged children to accuse their parents and neighbors of horrible sex crimes. Stoll and 60 others were charged with child molestation, and the justice system moved swiftly to put them in prison.
It didn't matter that they were innocent. And no one wanted to say anything out of fear that they'd be accused of not caring for children who were being abused. Some even thought they'd be hauled in by the authorities if they suggested that maybe there were problems with all these prosecutions.
Kern County justice wasn't based on the Constitution. Fear was its best friend.
But over the past two decades, a group of dedicated defense attorneys, private investigators and the Northern California Innocence Project worked to right these terrible wrongs. Stoll was the last of those wrongly convicted to be released.
The real tragedy is that those who ran the justice system knew the charges were trumped up, especially when the cases began falling apart in the appellate courts. But it still took a dozen years for the victims to win their freedom.
There's no doubt that child molestation occurs often in our society. But how many of actual molestation cases were ignored by Kern County authorities while they chased the hysteria of satanic cults hosting child sex parties?
I got involved in the Kern County story in 1985 when a colleague from the Sacramento Bee, the late Paul Avery, suggested that we team up on an investigation of child molestation rings in Bakersfield. I tried to brush him off, but he got me with this simple phrase that became our mission statement: "The molesters are innocent and we can prove it."
We began writing stories for the Sacramento and Fresno Bees that pointed out inconsistencies in the Bakersfield cases. The prosecutors and sheriff's investigators by then had spiced up the cases with allegations of satanic sacrifices, and said as many as 29 babies had been killed.
We searched public records for evidence of baby killings. No victims were ever found, nor were any babies even reported missing.
We knew we were on the right track when deputies began watching us and then the Bakersfield Californian, which was cozy with law enforcement, ran a story questioning why out-of-town reporters were making waves. The newspaper now was watching rival reporters who were only there because it refused to be a community watchdog.
The Bee stories finally caught the interest of the state Attorney General's Office, and a yearlong investigation concluded that local authorities had used "suggestive" questioning that led children to give answers that they wanted. The attorney general said there was both a shortage of corroborating evidence and that some alleged victims were simply parroting what they were told in questioning or what they heard other children say.
In many cases, young children were interviewed numerous times by authorities until they finally admitted to being molested. In one case an alleged victim had been interviewed 35 times before giving the "right" answer that his parents had molested him.
A 10-year-old boy was hypnotized after denying that he had been molested by his family. The boy was in county protective custody for almost two months when he was administered "reassuring hypnotic messages," according to investigative files. He finally told investigators what they wanted to hear -- he'd been molested by his parents and others.
Now that John Stoll is free, there are many in Bakersfield who want to put all this behind them. But it would add to the tragedy if the lessons of this black mark on Kern County justice are forgotten.
Bakersfield lawyer Stan Simrin, a pioneer in this fight for justice who also was involved in the Stoll case, said investigative procedures for child molestation cases are vastly different now. Interviews are taped and everyone knows if the children are being coaxed into saying things.
"I also don't think there's the hysteria now, and they aren't brainwashing the kids."
That wasn't true in Kern County in the 1980s, and dozens of people's lives were ruined because of it. Just ask John Stoll.
Wrongfully convicted, Stoll receives $200 upon his release after 20 years. Stoll knew he'd never survive with the stigma of being accused of child molestation. So he lied.
BAKERSFIELD, CA - Even murderers and rapists detest child molesters.
Behind bars, life can be brutal for people convicted of sexually abusing children - they're the bottom rung, marked men, constantly living in fear. Many seek shelter from other inmates by agreeing to "protective custody," rarely leaving their cells.
Found guilty of 17 counts of child molestation, John Stoll knew he'd never survive with that stigma. So he lied, posing as a drug runner for 20 long years - and somehow avoided attack until his conviction was reversed last week.
“...can't believe I was never attacked”
"I was terrified," said Stoll. "I knew the odds weren't real good that I wasn 't going to get stabbed going to prison as a convicted child molester."
Stoll walked free on Tuesday after most of his alleged victims recanted and said they lied about being molested back in 1984.
During his first days in prison, Stoll began researching crimes that could carry a 20-year sentence. He came across a newspaper article about a man convicted of smuggling marijuana and guns. He became that man - "And that's what I was for 20 years."
Stoll, now gray and balding, revealed details of his life in prison as he joined his lawyers for a celebratory meal on his first night as a free man - his 61st birthday. Gorging on filet mignon, calamari, and a chocolate birthday cake, he marveled at his freedom.
But the past still lingers, one night in particular.
A fellow inmate came to his cell - and said he knew Stoll's secret. The man had discovered his case in the prison law library.
"He says to me, 'I've got paperwork on you,"' Stoll remembered.
Then the cell doors closed for the night. Stoll thought it would be his last.
"I could feel the blood draining from me. I was scared. I sat all night and didn't sleep," he said. "Who's going to let a child molester walk around. It's a pretty disgusting crime."
By a stroke of luck, the next morning there was a riot in the "chow hall" and the inmate who threatened to expose Stoll was whisked away.
A guard later came to Stoll's cell and handed him a bundle of the other inmate's papers - the details of Stoll's conviction.
"I tore it up and flushed it down the toilet," Stoll said. "More than once, a prison staff member saved my life."
Stoll refused the protective custody given to most child molesters because it meant 23 hours a day alone in a cell. He knew he couldn't take the solitude, so he banked on his drug-running story to keep him safe.
Stoll's ability to keep his conviction a secret was "quite remarkable," said Anne Mania, an attorney at the San Rafael-based Prison Law Office, which handles civil rights issues for inmates.
"There's a huge stigma attached to being a child molester so they're often the victims of violence by other prisoners," Mania explained. "A lot of them are parents and everybody can identify that the abuse of children, particularly sexual abuse of children, is wrong. There's never any justification for that, whereas somebody might be able to, in his or her mind, justify a murder or a rape."
Stoll still can't believe he was never attacked.
"For 20 years nobody stabbed me so I must've said the right things," Stoll said. "I don't know what kept me alive ... You're really walking a fine line in prison because you can't be yourself."
As Stoll sat at the steakhouse dinner table, he cleaned his glasses with his cloth napkin and rubbed his head.
He was a fit man when he went to prison in 1985, a carpenter with strong hands, a full head of dark blonde curly hair and a winning smile. Now, a row of deep wrinkles crosses his forehead, and his gray mustache frames a mouth with just seven teeth remaining.
Stoll, who seemingly loves to laugh, lost most of his teeth to gum disease and medical neglect while in prison.
"This is really embarrassing to have a mouth full of teeth like this. You can 't even smile," Stoll said, practically gumming each bite of steak.
Two Innocence Project groups in California won Stoll's freedom after tracking down his alleged victims and persuading most of them - now adults - to come forward once again. Prosecutors still maintain Stoll is guilty, but said they would not refile charges because of a lack of evidence and the recanted witness testimony.
Stoll was convicted as part of an alleged child molestation ring that purportedly involved sodomy, group sex and pornographic photography. But no pictures were found - in fact, prosecutors presented no physical evidence at the trial. None of the children, ages 6 to 8, were examined by doctors. The case rested on testimony alone.
Four of those accusers testified in January that investigators pressured them until they lied. A fifth testified he has no memories from that part of his childhood.
The sixth, Stoll's own son, Jed, still insists his father molested him. Stoll blames that on a bitter custody dispute, saying his wife at the time had filled Jed's head with lies.
He has no other family left. His mother, who paid for his defense, died while he was in prison.
"But she always knew I was innocent," Stoll said. "That's what matters."
Stoll left Avenal State Prison with $200, standard for released prisoners.
"That's 10 bucks a year," he joked. "I've got nothing else left."
He said he'll likely sue Kern County - as have six other vindicated child molestation defendants, some of whom have won millions in settlement money.
Old friends have contacted him since his release, offering work and shelter. But he hasn't made any decisions.
He spent his first night at one of his attorney's homes and went on a shopping spree at a mall Wednesday, buying a new pair of glasses and a set of clothes. He called the ordeal "sensory overload."
When the birthday cake arrived at the table with a burning candle Tuesday night, Stoll's eyes widened. He grasped both sides of the plate, shaking nervously, closed his eyes and blew lightly.
"My wish has been answered," he said.
BAKERSFIELD, CA - A man whose child molestation conviction was overturned after he served 20 years in prison was released from custody Tuesday, his 61st birthday.
"Oh my. I don't know. This is wonderful. It's just amazing," John Stoll said after taking a bow and thanking his lawyers. His first wish was for a steak dinner, followed by birthday cake.
"For 20 years, I've had to go where others wanted me to go," he said.
Stoll walked free hours after Kern County prosecutors told Judge Lee P. Felice they would not seek to retry him and the judge dismissed the 17 counts of child molestation he had been convicted of in 1985.
"He's walking with no chains," marveled Stoll's attorney, Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University. "All those cases that you slog through, this makes you want to go back and do it all over again."
Stoll's decades-old conviction was reversed Friday in Kern County Superior Court after a nearly five-month hearing. Attorneys for two Innocence Project chapters in California had worked for his freedom, claiming authorities coerced false testimony from the victims, who were 6 to 8 years old at the time.
Stoll was convicted along with two other men and a woman of assaulting six children as part of a crime ring that allegedly included sodomy, group sex and pornographic photography.
Prosecutors presented no physical evidence at the original trial. None of the children were ever examined by doctors, even though some of the allegations included forcible sodomy. The case rested on testimony alone.
Four of Stoll's accusers, now adults, testified in January they were manipulated by overzealous investigators until they fabricated the stories. A fifth witness testified he has no memories from that part of his childhood.
The sixth alleged victim, Stoll's son, Jed, still insists his father molested him.
Prosecutors said they still believe Stoll was fairly convicted, but acknowledged they no longer have enough evidence to support a new trial.
The judge sided with defense attorneys, finding investigators overstepped their boundaries with manipulative questioning of the children that led to lies.
All along, Stoll claimed he was swept up in a wave of hysteria in the 1980s that led to the trials of hundreds of people. Many later had their convictions overturned for reasons including prosecutorial misconduct and coercive interview techniques.
In Bakersfield, 46 people were arrested in eight alleged molestation rings. Thirty were convicted, eight had their charges dropped and eight struck plea deals that kept them out of prison.
Twenty-two of those convictions were later reversed for reasons including legal technicalities, prosecutorial misconduct or faulty jury instructions. The rest served out their sentences. One died in prison.
Stoll, the last of his co-defendants in prison, said he had a lot to catch up on after 20 years. He made a call on a cell phone and said he wanted to go shopping. "I have a pretty good idea what's out there - I just haven't touched any of it yet," he said.
Stoll said the best part of the whole process is that he will no longer be labeled a child molester.
"That name does not go with my name any more," he said. "And that's what it's really all about."
May 5, 2004 Wednesday
GUESTS: John Stoll, Linda Starr,...
Good evening, I'm Anderson Cooper. ...
COOPER: Time for justice served now.
After 20 years in prison on child molestation charges, John Stoll is a free man tonight. Stoll was released yesterday, his birthday, after his conviction was overturned. There was no physical evidence at the original trial. Testimony alone convicted him and four of his accusers recanted the accusations they made as children saying they were manipulated by investigators.
In a moment we'll talk with John Stoll but first CNN's Rusty Dornin has his story.
RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a heck of a way to celebrate his 61st birthday, free at last, a moment John Stoll says he imagined a million times as he sat in his prison cell for 20 years.
JOHN STOLL, RELEASED PRISONER: Nothing like I thought. My heart's just a pounding away.
DORNIN: Prosecutors in 1985 claimed Stoll was part of a child sex ring in Bakersfield, California. He was convicted, along with two other men and a woman, of assaulting six children including his own son.
Chris Diori was eight years old when he testified he was molested by Stoll but last January he told the court he was badgered into lying by overzealous investigators.
CHRIS DIORI, RECANTED TESTIMONY: I told them, you know, numerous times, no it didn't happen to me, no, no, no, no, no.
DORNIN: Three other alleged victims also told the court it didn't happen. That convinced the judge. He reversed Stoll's conviction saying investigators used improper techniques which resulted in unreliable testimony.
Of the two remaining accusers, one says he doesn't remember being molested but Stoll's son, who was six at the time, still insists his father is guilty. Attorneys from Project Innocence worked for the last two years to exonerate Stoll. They argued the alleged victims in the case were never examined by doctors and there was no physical evidence presented.
Kern County prosecutors say they no longer have evidence to support a new trial. Stoll now will begin his life again free at last from the label child molester.
Rusty Dornin, CNN, San Francisco.
COOPER: John Stoll and his attorney Linda Starr join us now live from San Jose, California. Thanks very much for being on the program both of you.
STOLL: Thank you.
LINDA STARR, NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INNOCENCE PROJECT: Thanks for having us.
COOPER: John, the judge overturned your conviction. It doesn't necessarily mean you were acquitted of the charges. In fact some prosecutors even say they still believe you're guilty. Do you feel like you're really free today?
STOLL: Yes, I'm free. I feel free. No problem. They can say what they want to say.
COOPER: You're --
STOLL: I'm innocent.
COOPER: Your son Jed insists you still molested him. In fact, he's reported to have said, and I quote, "I want to make sure he can't get out and hurt anyone else. Did you molest your son? He was six years old at the time.
STOLL: No, I didn't, no. I didn't molest anybody.
COOPER: Why do you think he feels this way?
STOLL: Well, Jed was the focal point at the beginning of the investigation and I'm sure that he got a lot of prompting. I mean I don't -- I feel sorry. I really feel sorry that he feels that way but I didn't do anything to him and I'm sorry that he feels that way and that's just where it's at.
COOPER: Well, the bulk of the young men have recanted their stories. They said they were pressured by investigators. I know you have spoken to one of them. What was that conversation like? I mean do you forgive them?
STOLL: Well, of course. They were just children. I don't forgive the adults who told them the stories but I forgive the children. They didn't do anything.
COOPER: Linda, you've been convinced that John is innocent all along. What made you so sure?
STARR: A couple of things made me sure. First, meeting John made me sure. Once I spoke with him at length about his case and what he'd been through and what the accusations were I was certain he was innocent.
An attorney that I respect very much, who had also looked at his case and several others like it, also told us that he believed he was innocent and asked us to take a look at the case.
And then once we got into the case and began investigating and I spoke with the former child victims, I read the trial transcripts, I put it in the context of the other cases that were coming out of Kern County at the time. It was clear to me that this was just another of those improper convictions that came out of Kern County in that time period.
COOPER: John, 20 years behind bars. This was your first full day of freedom. What did you do? I mean how do you deal with it?
STOLL: You just got to move on. I mean I can't -- I can't dwell on it. I just have to move on. Today was quite a nice day. Yesterday was really a nice day but today was really exciting, went to the mall. Oh, oh, century overload, went to the mall. That was something.
COOPER: Was it like you had remembered it?
STOLL: Oh, no, just -- we stopped at a gas station and that wasn't even like what I remembered so the mall was just full. The mall was quite exciting.
COOPER: Well, I wish you peace and I hope things work out with your family. John Stoll, appreciate you joining us and Linda Starr as well. Thank you very much for being on the program.
STOLL: Thank you very much.
STARR: Thank you.
BAKERSFIELD, CA (AP) -- A judge has denied bail for a man seeking freedom after 20 years behind bars for a child molestation conviction based on the testimony of six child witnesses -- most of whom now say the crimes never happened.
John Stoll, now 60, was convicted in 1985 on 17 counts of child molestation. Attorneys for two Innocence Project chapters in California have been arguing for his freedom since January.
The judge on Monday ruled he would not release Stoll on bail pending his final decision April 30 on whether to overturn the conviction.
The ruling was followed by arguments in a hearing Stoll's lawyers requested to show that he should be exonerated.
"Mr. Stoll's conviction hangs on the falsehoods told by frightened and confused children 20 years ago," Innocence Project attorney Jill Kent told the judge. "It was all a result of suggestive questioning."
Stoll's case was one of hundreds of child molestation cases that swept the nation in the 1980s.
In Bakersfield alone, 46 people were arrested in eight alleged child molestation rings. Thirty were convicted, but 22 of the convictions were later reversed for reasons including prosecutorial misconduct.
Stoll is the last of his group of four still in prison.
Doctors never examined the children, ages 6 to 8, who claimed to have been molested by Stoll and others at parties that included sodomy and group sex.
Four of Stoll's accusers, now adults, recently testified they were manipulated by investigators who dogged them for hours until they fabricated the stories. A fifth witness testified he has no memories from that part of his childhood.
Eddie Sampley was 7 when he says he falsely testified against Stoll. On Monday, Sampley paced nervously outside the courtroom.
"I am just hoping that this burden can be lifted," Sampley said. "If I could take this guy's place, I would."
Kern County authorities defend Stoll's conviction.
"These kids were telling the truth back then and they are not, for whatever reason, today," prosecutor Lisa Green told the judge Monday.
Green has suggested witness memories may have clouded over time.
The prosecution also has Stoll's own son, Jed, who maintains his father is guilty. Stoll blames his son's insistence on a bitter custody dispute, saying his ex-wife filled their boy's head with lies.
"He was convinced to tell so many lies that he is just plain confused," Kent said at the hearing.
In a victory for Stoll, Kern County Superior Court Judge John Kelly ruled Monday he would accept defense experts' testimony regarding comparisons between Stoll's case and another that the judge overturned after finding that investigators coerced false testimony from children.
The same investigators interviewed Stoll's accusers.
Though he is up for parole next year, a release without vindication could send Stoll to a state mental hospital indefinitely.
"I just want to clear my name," Stoll said in a jailhouse interview with The Associated Press. "That's all I've got left."
BAKERSFIELD, CA - Christopher Diuri's temper was smoldering as he sat on the witness stand, enduring a prosecutor's withering cross-examination.
The 27-year-old mechanic's memory was challenged. His motives for coming forward as a witness were questioned. Even a past run-in with the law - a DUI arrest - was brought out.
Diuri, a plain-spoken man with a closely shaved head, finally snapped. "This case tore my whole family apart when I was a kid," he spat at Deputy Dist. Atty. Lisa Green. "And it's still doing it now."
Diuri's experience was repeated again and again last week as four former witnesses in one of the nation's biggest child molestation cases from the 1980s took the stand to say they had never been molested as children. They had only said they were, they now confessed, because law enforcement had hounded and threatened them.
The witnesses wanted to set the record straight, they said, because their false testimony had sent four innocent people to prison, including John Stoll, who is still there 19 years later. In wrenching testimony, one of the former child victims, a burly sign painter named Edward Sampley, tearfully addressed the bald, 60-year-old inmate in jailhouse brown. "I'm sorry," Sampley said, as both he and Stoll wiped away tears.
A touching scene of reconciliation? Hardly. If these young men, all in their mid-20s, thought Kern County authorities would welcome their heartfelt confessions, they were mistaken. Green hammered away at them, questioning whether they might be planning to file suit against the county and raising the prospect that they had formed some sort of conspiracy to free the very man who molested them.
As the first week drew to a close in an unusual hearing to determine whether Stoll should get a new trial or win his freedom, the prosecutor's strategy became clear: Make the witnesses look like liars, opportunists and social outcasts. The court battle shows that even two decades later, the infamous child molestation investigation that, along with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, helped put Bakersfield on the map refuses to go away. Years later, the cases are still upending people's lives.
The prosecutor's tactics, meanwhile, are enraging Stoll's attorneys.
"This is just a continuation of what went on in 1985," fumed Kathleen Ridolfi, executive director of Santa Clara University's Northern California Innocence Project. Project attorneys, along with the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law in San Diego, are representing Stoll.
"For them to continue to badger these young men after what they went through as children is just outrageous," Ridolfi said.
Even Stoll, sweating out his own future, expressed outrage in a jail interview. "They're picking on those kids again," he said. "Why can't they just leave them alone?"
Besides being risky, the prosecution strategy is replete with irony. Those who are targeted are the same people who, two decades earlier, were portrayed by the district attorney's office as tender victims of a vast interlocking network of child abusers and pornographers.
Stoll was one of more than 40 people convicted in the eight Bakersfield cases that began in 1984, one of the first of the wave of multi-offender molestation cases that swept the nation in the 1980s and '90s.
Authorities in Bakersfield contended that they had uncovered eight multi-offender rings, of which Stoll's was one. Many were centered in the working-class area east of Bakersfield called Oildale. Some sheriff's investigators believed they had stumbled on a network of abusers that had its roots in the Ozarks. The investigations fell apart two years after they began, when allegations of child abuse grew into reports of satanic activity, and when the children, who until then were thought to be unable to lie, began accusing sheriff's investigators and even a prosecutor of molestation.
In the intervening years, many convicted in Kern County have been released after appellate judges found prosecutorial misconduct and a variety of other errors. The state attorney general's office also issued a scathing report blasting the way the investigations had been handled. Among the findings: Investigators were so convinced they had stumbled on career-making child abuse cases that they did not bother to do routine police work, such as taking the alleged victims in for medical tests.
Of those convicted nearly 20 years ago, Stoll is among the last remaining in prison.
Green has repeatedly refused to answer questions about her trial strategy. The challenge facing her, however, is to answer a question that looms large. What do these young men, a cross section of working-class America - cooks, salesmen, mechanics, with homes, wives and families - have to gain by helping to free the man convicted of subjecting them to perverse acts?
Green will have a chance to develop her case on Feb. 23, when the hearing resumes. She is expected to call the sheriff's investigator and the child welfare worker involved in the Stoll investigation. Green's ace in the hole, if she can deliver it, will be Jed Stoll, John Stoll's estranged son. In an affidavit, he insists he was molested, just as he previously testified. Jed Stoll did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Innocence Project attorneys believe Jed's "memories" of molestation were planted by investigators. To support that, an expert in what has come to be known as false memory syndrome was called to testify. Because Jed was the youngest victim, at 6, and because he was considered under the influence of Stoll's ex-wife, who lodged the original accusation of molestation during a child custody dispute, his memories are unreliable, Stoll's attorneys say.
Another alleged victim, whose story may be the strangest - and most troublesome - of all, is Allen Grafton, 28, a cook who lives in Idaho. Grafton has spent what he estimates to be nearly half his life in therapy as a molestation survivor. His mother, Margie, was convicted of molesting her sons, Allen and Donald.
The saga was so disturbing within the family that even after her release from prison, where other inmates had maimed her hands by pushing them into prison machinery, she and Allen never discussed what had happened in 1984. He eventually reached a kind of peace with her, he said in an interview.
"I forgave her," he said in an interview. But what if there is nothing to forgive?
Allen Grafton heard a couple of years ago that Stoll, who had been sentenced to 40 years in prison, was hoping to get out. Even more shocking, he discovered that four of Stoll's other alleged victims - including his brother Donald - were telling Innocence Project attorneys that they had never been molested.
When he looked inside himself, he realized that despite all his therapy, he had no memories of having been molested, he said. But that doesn't mean he agrees with his brother that nothing happened. His whole concept of himself was built on the certainty that he'd been victimized, but never a victim. He was tough. He was smart. He also concedes that he was a heavy marijuana smoker, but only because he has what he calls a "monkey mind" that's always going.
Called to the stand last week, Grafton didn't do much for either side. He didn't join the four who said they were certain they had not been molested, but neither did he help the prosecution. He simply said he had no memories of what happened.
Grafton said it took some courage to finally look over at John Stoll. Try as he might, he couldn't see anything bad in his soul, he said. In retrospect, he wished he could have offered some compassion. "People in his situation, if he's innocent, I can only imagine what he's going through."
Grafton is just starting to go through his own trial. If the molestation "didn't happen," he said, "what does that do to me? I have to get to the point where that doesn't matter."
If the term "elephant in the room" applies to something unacknowledged that looms over everything, then there is an entire herd in Judge John Kelly's courtroom. Take the fact that one of the original prosecutors in Stoll's case was Stephen Tauzer.
Tauzer, then the No. 2 prosecutor in Kern County behind Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels, was brutally beaten to death in his own garage two years ago. It later turned out that the man who killed Tauzer was a former colleague, Chris Hillis, who was enraged because he felt that Tauzer, who was gay, was preying on his son.
Another issue lurking in the background is the battered reputation of Kern County law enforcement. The collapse of the molestation cases, the critical attorney general's report, and two books about the Kern legal system - one titled "Mean Justice" - have given local authorities a bad name. And perhaps that is now motivating them to ensure that Stoll doesn't go free like the rest.
Until now, the county's top prosecutor since 1983, Ed Jagels, has escaped political retribution from the voters. To many people who like Jagels' hard-nosed approach to justice, it didn't matter what outsiders said. They felt safe in their homes, and that was enough.
That may be changing. One factor was Tauzer's killing and the unseemly details that came out afterward about his private life. Another was a hard-hitting series in the local newspaper raising questions about Jagels and a supposedly secret cabal called the Lords of Bakersfield. Most recently, Jagels' wife, Bryanna, was arrested for allegedly trying to use phony prescriptions to obtain painkillers from local pharmacies.
Jagels quickly filed for divorce and people close to the Kern legal community expect him to run again in 2006.
Nobody thinks it will be a walkover this time.
BAKERSFIELD, CA - It had been an exhilarating week for John Stoll. Easily one of the best he's had in 19 years. That may not be saying much, since he spent those years in one or another California prison.
Still, he couldn't seem to keep a smile off his face as he sat chatting in a classroom at the Kern County Jail outside Bakersfield. After all those years, four men who accused Stoll of molesting them when they were children took the stand last week and said he never touched them. Several broke down in tears over what they had done.
"When those kids said, 'I didn't do it,' oh, my God, that was just so I really have a hard time explaining. It was just such a relief," he said.
Stoll was a divorced carpenter trying to raise a 6-year-old child when he was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to 40 years in prison for leading a ring of child abusers. Stoll had no way of knowing it, but he was caught up in one of the most ambitious child-abuse investigations in the nation, one that would eventually collapse and besmirch the reputation of Kern County law enforcement.
Stoll said that the 19 years since his arrest have been lonely and at times desperate. He dared not share his story with fellow inmates - a child molester is a frequent target of violence in prison.
Then, several years ago, members of the Northern California Innocence Project contacted him and said they were interested in examining his case. Last year, the attorneys filed a petition with the Kern County courts, claiming, among other things, that the original conviction was flawed by the manner in which the children were interrogated.
About eight months ago, Stoll was anxiously waiting in a Central Valley prison to see if the court would grant him a hearing. He was buttoned-down, wary. The perfect institutional man, he'd learned not to look ahead or behind. You only got through the days by dealing with them one by one.
The man who sat talking at the Kern County Jail last week couldn't have been more different. He was almost ebullient. "I don't know how to explain how it feels" to finally have corroboration for his decades-old denials that he did anything wrong, Stoll said.
Yet he knows there is no guarantee he will win his freedom. The district attorney's office will present its side of the case in a few weeks.
"I am aware of what's to come," Stoll said. "I'm sure the [female prosecutor] is going to do her best to make me look like the evil one."
Besides the original investigators, who are expected to deny bullying the child "victims," another witness likely to be called is John Stoll's son, Jed. He has given an affidavit to the D.A.'s office saying he stands by his earlier testimony that his father molested him. But as the youngest alleged victim, at 6, he was the most vulnerable to manipulation, attorneys said.
John Stoll said it hurts worse than anything to know his son believes that about him. "Jed's the one I really wanted to hear say I didn't do it," Stoll said, his eyes welling up.
Asked if he was prepared to face his son in court, he shook his head. "Not at all."
He also admits to being too scared to think about the future. Although Stoll has a parole date coming up next year, there is no guarantee he will be released then either. If Kern County classifies him as a sexually violent predator, he could be held indefinitely.
Still, last week was a good week. "No matter what happens," Stoll said, smiling again, "to hear those kids, it was so unbelievable."
BAKERSFIELD, CA - John Stoll had spent nearly 20 years behind bars imagining what it would feel like to hear a judge say he had been wrongly convicted. Now that it was happening, his heart was racing so fast he feared he might not survive the experience.
"I thought, 'Oh great, I'm going to have a heart attack and die in front of all these people,' " Stoll said Friday afternoon.
Hours earlier, Kern County Judge John Kelly had overturned his conviction on 17 counts of child molestation in connection with the infamous Bakersfield "witch hunt" cases. Kelly ruled that techniques investigators used to question the alleged victims two decades ago amounted to manipulation and "resulted in unreliable testimony."
Prosecutor Lisa Green said the district attorney's office will not seek to retry Stoll, even though she believes he is guilty. "I'm disappointed," Green said outside court. "You win some, you lose some."
Sitting in a jail cell awaiting his release, Stoll said he hadn't absorbed the fact that he is apparently about to go free as early as Tuesday, his 61st birthday. He looked a bit intimidated as he held a cellphone for the first time and tried to figure out how it worked. He knows, though, exactly what he wants to do first when he gets out.
"A piece of steak and a baked potato would be nice," Stoll said. As visitors suggested eateries around town, Stoll interrupted: "Quite frankly, I'd like to eat outside Kern County."
As soon as he is able, he said, he will leave Bakersfield. That's where, in the summer of 1984, he was accused of being the ringleader of a band of child molesters and pornographers. Stoll and his friends constituted one of eight alleged child molestation rings in town, committing a litany of sex acts against children, authorities said.
The "witch hunts," as critics called them, were the first of a wave of multiple-victim child molestation cases to sweep the nation in the mid-1980s. Unlike the McMartin Pre-School case in Manhattan Beach, in which nobody was convicted, dozens of people in Bakersfield were sent to prison. Stoll is believed to be the longest held of all the convicted molesters around the country.
Stoll had long maintained his innocence, claiming there was no evidence for any of the charges. No indecent photos were ever found, and the child victims, who included his own son, were never examined by a physician. As in many of the cases, Stoll's conviction was based almost solely on the testimony of child witnesses who defense attorneys maintained had been badgered and brainwashed by overzealous investigators.
As time went on, the convictions of others around the country were reversed on appeal. But Stoll was unable to find an attorney willing to look into his case.
Two years ago, public-interest lawyers from the California Innocence Project in San Diego and the Northern California Innocence Project in Santa Clara tracked down several purported victims who are now adults. Four of them trooped to the stand several weeks ago to describe horrifying treatment, not at the hands of Stoll but of law enforcement and prosecutors. Investigators cajoled, badgered and even threatened them to convince them to testify to sex acts they now said never happened.
Several of those witnesses apologized in court to Stoll and two of them, Eddie Sampley and Victor Monge, were in court Friday to hear the judge's ruling. Tears rolled down Monge's cheek when Kelly threw out Stoll's conviction. "I'm glad and happy," Monge said afterward.
Stoll's happiness over the judge's reversal was tempered by the damaged relationship with his son. Jed Stoll, 25, testified against his father in February, repeating his allegations of two decades ago that his father molested him.
Under questioning, however, he said he couldn't remember any details of the alleged molestation. He also admitted to lying about some details in court when he was a child.
Defense attorneys this year called an expert who said young children -- Jed was the youngest victim at 6 -- who have been repeatedly questioned can manufacture false memories. Stoll's lawyers also asserted that Jed was under pressure from his mother, Stoll's ex-wife, who filed the original complaint against Stoll during a nasty custody battle.
"That was the only thing this day didn't cure," Stoll said of his relationship with his son. Jed's testimony "hurt me. But I can't do anything about it."
Stoll's habeas corpus petition relied on three main arguments: that the investigators tape-recorded victims but now claimed they couldn't find the tapes; that the questioning techniques were improper; and that Stoll's conviction was a result of false testimony.
Although several of the former victims remembered a tape recorder, Judge Kelly dismissed that claim after the original investigating sheriff's deputy, Conny Ericsson, said there was no tape recorder. After finding that the interviews were improper, Kelly said the third argument was unnecessary.
After Friday's decision, Stoll's attorneys hugged and cried in the hallway outside court. "I'm beside myself," said Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University. "To actually see the system work."
Ironically, as the project savors one of its greatest triumphs, it is facing the prospect of going out of business. Because of state budget problems, the project has lost $400,000 in funding this year.
"There are more John Stolls out there," said project Executive Director Kathleen Ridolfi. "Unless we raise some money, this project will die."
Stoll was allowed to meet with reporters at Kern County's Lerdo jail facility. Reporters asked how he felt about his victory. "I can't describe it," said Stoll, sitting at a table in a holding area. "It's indescribable."
Kelly's ruling does not amount to a finding of actual innocence. It means simply that the first trial was so compromised that the conviction must be overturned. Stoll said it was the most he could expect after all these years, and it had to be enough.
"I'm not a child molester," he said.
One of his attorneys recounted a conversation in which Stoll bemoaned the loss of his early middle age behind prison bars.
The mostly bald head, the lined face, the weary eyes are those of a man sliding into old age. Asked if he was angry that he had to wait all these years for vindication, Stoll shook his head.
"I've got a fresh start," he said. "Let's move on."
The New York Times May 1, 2004, Saturday
California: Molesting Conviction Rejected AP
A judge threw out the child molesting conviction of a man who has spent 20 years in prison, after most of the accusers said the assaults never happened. The inmate, John Stoll, now 60, was convicted in 1985 on 17 counts of child molesting, along with two other men and a woman. Mr. Stoll is the last of the four in prison. Prosecutors presented no physical evidence at the original trial; none of the six children involved were examined by doctors. The case rested on testimony, which the defense contended had been coerced from the children, who were 6 to 8. Four of the accusers, now adults, testified in January that they had been manipulated by investigators. A fifth said he had no memories of that time.
The Washington Post May 1, 2004 Saturday
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- A judge threw out the child-molestation conviction of a man who spent 20 years in prison, siding with the defense after most of the alleged victims claimed the assaults never happened. John Stoll, 60, was convicted in 1985 on 17 counts of child molestation. Attorneys for the Innocence Project had sought his freedom since January, claiming authorities coerced false testimony from the victims, ranging from 6 to 8 years old.
Howard Fishman Note: "Though 40 people were convicted in the prosecutions, the convictions of a vast majority have been reversed over the years due to witness recantations, prosecutorial misconduct, and improper child witness interviewing techniques, which lead to unreliable testimony." What an indictment of our so-called justice and child protection systems!
Once again, this is a case that will be characterized as an anomaly. I beg to differ. Several times every week I am confronted with new cases that have no more merit than the Stoll case. Tragically, most of the defendants cannot afford the services of a competent attorney.
(That is not to suggest that highly paid attorneys are necessarily more effective.) The child abuse industry regularly proclaims that the necessary reforms have been implemented so that these travesties are far less likely to occur. Hogwash! H
SANTA CLARA, CA -- (BUSINESS WIRE)--04/23/2004--A Bakersfield man, in prison since 1985, has a chance at regaining his freedom, because of the hard work of the attorneys of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law and the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law. John Andrew Stoll was convicted of 17 counts of child molestation in 1984. But five witnesses who testified as children have recanted their trial testimony of 20 years ago. Kern County Superior Court Judge John Kelley will rule on the new evidence on Fri., April 30 and decide if Stoll was wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn't commit.
Beginning in Jan. 2004, four of Stoll's six former accusers recanted their trial testimony that Stoll, a former building contractor, had molested them. A fifth witness has testified that he has little memory of his childhood and no memory of Stoll molesting him or anyone else. One young man, Stoll's son, the sixth and final witness, still maintains he was molested by Stoll.
The men took the stand in a Kern County Superior Court room and said that the stories of sexual abuse they told as children were lies, and that they were coerced by law enforcement officials into making false allegations against Stoll when they were boys, ages 6 to 8.
The Northern California Innocence Project and the California Innocence Project are representing Stoll and presenting the newly discovered evidence supporting his claim of innocence.
"The tragedy of this case is the large number of people who were victimized by the actions of Kern County officials -- children, their families, and, most profoundly, John Stoll," said Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project. "It's time to take the first step toward restoring the community's faith in justice by reversing John Stoll's conviction."
The Stoll case was one of eight Kern County multi-offender, multi-victim sex ring cases in the mid-1980s. Though 40 people were convicted in the prosecutions, the convictions of a vast majority have been reversed over the years due to witness recantations, prosecutorial misconduct, and improper child witness interviewing techniques, which lead to unreliable testimony. If Stoll is not released from prison, he will be eligible for parole in nine months on Jan 15, 2005.
"These witnesses were forced to tell lies that robbed a man of 20 years of his life and robbed them of their innocence," said Kathleen "Cookie" Ridolfi, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project. "The children grew up knowing an innocent man was sent to prison because of something they did. John Stoll is a victim but so are the boys and their families. The biggest crime of it all is the District Attorney's continued refusal to assume responsibility for any of it. Without accountability, we won't learn from the mistakes, we'll just keep making them."
The Northern California Innocence Project and the California Innocence Project are part of the National Innocence Network of similar projects nationwide. Innocence Project students work alongside practicing criminal defense lawyers to seek the release of wrongfully convicted inmates who maintain their factual innocence. The Northern California Innocence Project, based at both Santa Clara University School of Law and Golden Gate University, handles Northern California cases, while the project at California Western School of Law takes on Southern California cases.
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