Wrongful Prosecution: An Example
August 9, 2013
In their book, Mistrial, Mark Geragos and Pat Harris tell
the true story of Edmond Ovasapyan, a young man who was wrongfully
arrested and prosecuted for murder in Glendale, California in
2009. Below is a bare outline of this injustice, followed by
a few thoughts on wrongful prosecution and how we might make
it less common.
A man was shot in his home by two intruders, and the mother,
who saw them, escaped. When police found that Ovasapyan had laid
some tile at the woman's house, they showed his photo to her
several times and she repeatedly said that he was not one of
the killers. You might think that would be the end of that.
Apparently, the Glendale police wanted to "solve"
the case quickly, so they ignored the woman's claims that Ovasapyan
was not one of the killers, and continued to target him. He was
arrested and sent to the worst jail in the county, and put in
with murderers while awaiting trial. The police put out a press
release naming him as the killer and letting everyone know that
they has made the arrest within 24 hours.
Meanwhile they ignored the fact that the defendant had an
alibi. He was working a job several miles away, and had left
only to go to Home Depot to get supplies sometime after the murder
occurred. He was wearing an outfit that was completely different
from the one described by the mother of the victim. The video
from Home Depot verified all of this. Lead detective Arthur Frank
said Ovasapyan could have killed the man, then gone home to change
and then gone to the store. The police continued to look for
evidence, and interviewed people, but none of the evidence suggested
he was guilty.
The police were so intent on going after Ovasapyan that when
his attorneys (Geragos and Harris) showed that his cell phone
records put him exactly where he said he was at the time of the
crime, they invented a scenario to explain that. They said he
had someone make a call from there on his phone to make it look
like he was there. Still, with no actual evidence the case should
have been dismissed by any reasonable judge at the preliminary
hearing. It wasn't.
The prosecution brought the mother of the victim into the
courtroom and asked her to identify the killer. She pointed at
Edmond Ovasapyan, who was, of course, sitting there in prison
clothes, looking like a criminal. She had probably been told
that he was the murderer, and that her identification was crucial
to the case. Identifying the wrong person is common for a variety
of reasons, and having a police department and prosecutor's office
encouraging such misidentification makes it more common.
A baseball cap with hair on it, left at the scene of the crime,
eventually led to another suspect based on the DNA found. The
killer was arrested and confessed to being involved, but said
he had no idea who Edmond Ovasapyan was. Still they would not
release Edmond Ovasapyan for another three weeks. He spent a
total of nine months in jail thanks to police detectives and
a prosecuting attorney who almost certainly knew he was innocent,
but who just wanted to clear the case. Also, because of the misidentification
encouraged by the police, the case against the true killers was
weak, and they never went to trial.
Detective Frank said that Ovasapyan should have been grateful
to him for finding the real killer and getting him released.
He refused to apologize. As Geragos and Harris point out, the
police not only went after an innocent man, but they made it
unlikely that the real killers will ever be prosecuted.
How do we stop wrongful prosecution? It can't be stopped entirely,
but it would help if there were some consequences for those involved.
Even if we make the generous assumption that the police and prosecutor
really thought Ovasapyan was guilty, their actions may have resulted
in the real killers going free. They went after Ovasapyan even
though all evidence pointed to his innocence. If it could be
proven that they knew he was innocent, they should all go to
prison. Since that probably cannot be proven the police and prosecuting
attorney should at least face a suspension or other penalty for
their sloppy work. The fact that they can go after any innocent
person without consequence (the city had to pay a settlement
in a civil case, but his did not affect them) means they might
be tempted to do this again. Ovasapyan, if convicted (and sadly,
many innocent people are convicted of major crimes), could have
received the death penalty. Losing a month's pay seems like a
minimal penalty for those who made this injustice possible through
gross negligence if not outright intent.
Furthermore, elected judges are now so afraid to appear "soft
on crime" that they allow cases like this to proceed. We
should probably have them appointed or elected for life (but
with a way to fire them), or in some other way make them feel
comfortable being reasonable rather than political in their decisions.
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