Wrongfully Convicted Man Released After More Than 20 Years

February 9, 2007

LOS ANGELES -- Jubilant family and friends cried and screamed Friday as a Venice man who spent the last 23 years behind bars was released from custody following a Los Angeles Superior Court judge's decision to overturn his 20-year-old murder conviction.

Timothy Atkins, who is now 40, was released around noon from the Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles, said Justin Brooks, a professor at the California Western School of Law in San Diego and director of the California Innocence Project.

Atkins was still a teenager when he was convicted of killing Vincente Gonzalez on New Year's Day 1985.

The Innocence Project, a law clinic at the school that seeks the release of the wrongfully convicted, was instrumental in securing his release after a key witness recanted her testimony that he confessed to the murder.

"It was an amazing culmination of a four-year odyssey for us and a 23- year odyssey for him," Brooks said.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan -- who presided over Atkins' murder trial 23 years ago -- overturned the conviction Thursday and ordered him released immediately, but paperwork delayed his freedom until today.

"It took 24 hours and we were happy at that," Brooks said.

Looking "as happy as he could possibly be," Atkins thanked those who came to see him released, saying he was grateful for their support, Brooks said. He said Atkins was initially stunned by the judge's decision, which didn't sink in until around midnight as he lay in his bunk and realized he was spending his last night behind bars.

Venice 2000, a community outreach group that intercedes on behalf of troubled youths to prevent them from joining gangs, has agreed to pay for Atkins' education at Cal State Los Angeles, where he will pursue a degree in counseling, Brooks said.

He said the future looked bright for Atkins, who has not expressed bitterness at his longtime incarceration for a murder he insists he did not commit.

"I don't say this about all our clients, but I think he's going to make it, he's really stable and a strong guy," Brooks said. "I really believe he's going to keep a positive state of mind."

Atkins was convicted of one count of murder and two counts of robbery on July 28, 1987, and had been serving a sentence of 32 years to life. He is scheduled to return to court March 8, when prosecutors could announce whether they intend to retry him.

"We're still looking over our options," said Sandi Gibbons, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office.

Prosecutors have 60 days to decide whether to retry the case.

The California Innocence Project took up Atkins' case after a key prosecution witness in his trial recanted her testimony 15 years later.

Denise Powell, the Atkins' neighbor, told police Atkins confessed to killing Gonzalez as he and his wife were picking up their children from a babysitter.

Two black males approached Gonzalez's car from behind and pointed guns at the couple. Gonzalez was shot in the chest by one assailant, and the second assailant took a necklace from his wife.

Atkins' family said Powell admitted years later that she wrongly implicated Atkins.

"Denise came to me some years ago saying to me that she had lied and wanted to right her wrong," said Timothy's sister, Sheila Atkins.

After receiving the written recant from Powell, the Innocence Project of the California Western School of Law petitioned the court to reexamine the decades-old murder, which resulted in yesterday's reversal.

Of all the witness accounts in Atkins' trial, Powell's was the most "compelling," said Jan Stiglitz, co-director of the Innocence Project.

"The case was thin to begin with. We think without Powell, the (district attorney) has no realistic chance to get a conviction," Stiglitz said.

Maria Gonzalez, who got a "brief glimpse of her attacker," fingered Atkins as one of the assailants, but her eyewitness identification was "very shaky" under the circumstances, Stiglitz said.

"She didn't have very much opportunity to look, the lighting conditions were bad, and her husband had just been shot and was lying bleeding on her lap," he said.

A third witness, a jailhouse snitch, allegedly told police Atkins confessed, but during the trial he denied the defendant had incriminated himself.

Atkins' former attorney, David Wesley, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, took the stand last September to testify on Atkins' behalf.

"Mr. Atkins' case was one of those cases you remember for a long time," Wesley said. "I had some real doubts about whether he was guilty or not. And in fact, when I represented him, I was convinced that he was not guilty. And that doubt stayed with me."

It's unclear why Powell would wrongly accuse Atkins, although one family member claimed she would have said anything for drugs.

"There's always been this question as to why she did," Stiglitz said. "I think it was a high-visibility crime and there was pressure on the police to get someone for this crime, and I think she was feeling some pressure and she may have been trying to protect the real perpetrator and probably didn't think that Tim would ever be convicted."

The family said they planned to celebrate Atkins' long-awaited release.

"We're going to hold on to him tonight," said Bernita Boney, Atkins' aunt. "We're going to celebrate this weekend. We're going to hold on to him and touch him, make sure ... we're going to check him out, make sure everything's all right."

Atkins is the fifth person in Southern California to be released from prison through the efforts of the California Innocence Project.

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