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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