Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Xmas at Walla Walla: innocent man awaits release

December 23, 2008

SEATTLE -- James S. Anderson is about to spend his fifth straight Christmas behind bars. The difference this time is he's no longer a convict.

A state appeals court erased the 31-year-old's conviction for armed robbery this month, saying new evidence uncovered by a University of Washington Law School student corroborates what Anderson has always said: He was in California when a group of men hit a Tacoma grocery store in 2004.

Prosecutors joined Anderson's lawyers in asking for his immediate release, but severe winter storms closed the court and helped delay the necessary paperwork. It's unclear how soon he could get out of the Walla Walla state penitentiary in eastern Washington; his family in Los Angeles is eager to see him whenever he arrives.

"All the family's talking about James coming home, James coming home!" his mother, Yuralene Spencer of Los Angeles, said. "Everyone is so happy, full of joy, like God gave us the best present we ever had."

Anderson was arrested in California in July 2004. Prosecutors charged him with robbing a payday-loan store in Washington's Pierce County that April 12; a witness had picked his photo out of a montage.

Anderson had spent time in Pierce County and may have known some of the robbers - "He wasn't no angel or nothing," his mother says. But he quickly proved his innocence. Records from California showed he met with his probation officer in Los Angeles on April 12, and Pierce County prosecutors dropped the charge.

But they soon accused him of a different robbery - one at a Safeway store four days earlier, on April 8. Two other robbery suspects fingered him. Both received significant time off their own sentences for cooperating.

Anderson again insisted he was innocent, and offered the same alibi: He could not have committed the crime because he was in California. Probation records would again prove it, he said.

But this time, he had a problem. The Los Angeles County probation department refused to give him the records, court documents show. The case went to trial in 2005, with Anderson acting as his own lawyer. The jury didn't believe his testimony - or that of his girlfriend when she said he was with her in California at 4 a.m. on April 8, 2004.

The Pierce County prosecutor's office tried to locate the records before trial, said Michelle Luna-Green, a deputy prosecutor who worked on Anderson's appeal. The office sent L.A. County Probation an e-mail asking for records on Anderson, but received nothing that indicated he met with his probation officer between April 6, when he got out of county jail, and April 12.

"We would never willfully withhold records of that nature," Luna-Green said. "We went out of our way to look out for the defendant's side in this case since he wasn't represented by an attorney."

A judge sentenced Anderson to nearly 17 years in prison, and he might have served it had his case not piqued the curiosity of Boris Reznikov last year. Reznikov, now a litigation attorney in Palo Alto, Calif., was a student working with the Innocence Project Northwest at the University of Washington Law School when he came across a letter from Anderson.

"At first I just thought he was convicted because he represented himself," Reznikov said. "But then I remember reading about 700 pages of the court transcript and getting more and more mad. I was thinking, wow, every time James is in court he's telling the judge, he's telling the prosecutor, 'I was in L.A. I met with my probation officer.' All his attempts fell on deaf ears. The records were just never produced."

Anderson had convictions for second-degree robbery, attempted robbery and assault stemming from a single incident in 1993, when he was 16. He served time, but violated the terms of his release, earning himself a stint in the L.A. county jail that ended on April 6, 2004. He had strict orders to check in with his probation officer within 24 hours.

Reznikov called the probation office himself to see if Anderson had obeyed. A kindly man answered the phone and confirmed that yes, Anderson had met with his probation officer at 4:46 p.m. on April 7, 2004. The robbery occurred less than 12 hours later, nearly 1,000 miles away. No evidence suggests Anderson flew to Seattle that night.

Reznikov worked with the Innocence Project's director, Jacqueline McMurtrie, and a former student of hers, Seattle attorney Christopher R. Carney, in petitioning the Washington State Court of Appeals to vacate Anderson's conviction and grant him a new trial. The petition was granted early this month - the 13th conviction the Innocence Project Northwest has successfully challenged since McMurtrie founded it in 1997.

"This new evidence is likely to change the result of trial," a three-judge panel noted in its unanimous decision.

Carney said he did not know whether Anderson plans to sue the state, and that for now he and McMurtrie are focused on getting him to Los Angeles, where he plans to stay at his mother's house.

The AP's efforts to speak with Anderson were unsuccessful, but McMurtrie said he was surprised and appreciative to learn of the court's ruling, and he's anxious to return to L.A.

"He said he hadn't been able to sleep since he got the news," she said.

It will be the first time most of the family has seen him since his arrest, although his older sister, Loretta Anderson, flew to Washington for his trial.

"The judge allowed me to sit inside the courtroom with James," she said. "He cried to me, 'I didn't do this! Why are they doing this to me?' This was the most heartbreaking thing in my own life, for them to take my one of my brothers."

James missed a lot in the past four years, she said - including their father's funeral. Loretta said she put off her own wedding until James could be there to walk her down the aisle.

She and her mother offered profuse thanks to the lawyers who worked on Anderson's behalf.

"It's like we don't even believe it," Loretta Anderson said. "We just want to see his face."

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