The Fingerprint That Lied: Justice vs. William De Palma

                                     The Fingerprint That Lied

         Justice Vs. William De Palma

By Paul Morantz

“Unfortunately the law of inertia often governs the investigation and prosecution of a criminal case. Once law enforcement officers and prosecutors feel they have the right man, their own conviction too often becomes a matter of faith very difficult to shake. And that faith in their righteousness can be blinding. It can be passed on to wavering witnesses and juries waiting to trust their government. It can be used to excuse trickery and deceit in the name of a greater cause. And it can cause grave injustice.”

John Van De Kamp

Federal Public Defender

Los Angeles

On November 16, 1967, a man with a pistol and a brown bag held up a Crocker-Citizens Bank branch in Whittier, California. One hour later, a mile away, William DePalma, 30, a family man, was beginning his first day as a door–to–door salesman of children’s books, when a police officer stopped him. DePalma fit the description of the bank robber– five feet, nine inches tall, 180 pounds, dark hair, dark suit and tie. After searching DePalma and his car, the officer let him go and filed a report.

The incident unsettled DePalma, enough to make and give up door-to-door sales and returned to his previous job as a catering-truck driver. Eventually, the matter faded in his mind although it did get a big laugh at the family’s Thanksgiving dinner that year.

On November 28, 1967, 12 days after the Crocker robbery, a man with a similar description and method operandus– gun and bag– held up the Mercury Savings and Loan in Buena Park, California.

That same day, Whittier Detective Sergeant Joe Plummer checked to see if William DePalma had a criminal record. He had: several arrests for juvenile mischief and a 1961 bookmaking conviction– the latter the result of watching a bar for a friend who happened to be a bookie. It was enough to make DePalma a prime suspect. 

Plummer, by threatening arrests for noncompliance, got DePalma down to the station. DePalma was unshaven and in a T-shirt.  When they arrived, Plummer took a Polaroid snapshot of DePalma. No one at the Crocker Bank recognized the photo, so it and a 1957 fingerprint card on Depalma were sent along to Buena Park Investigation Officer, Detective Sergeant Patrick Black. One of two teller witnesses at the Mercury Bank, Ernestine Cazares, passed over DePalma’s photo, but the second teller, Sharon Goldwin, picked it out. Later that day, Sergeant James D. Bakken, head of the Buena Park crime lab, reported a fingerprint lifted from the bank counter by Officer Darryl Cate was identical to the left index finger on DePalma’s 1957 fingerprint card.

On December 12, 1957, a Sunday, DePalma was standing in front of his house in a green-lawned neighborhood, hosing the soapsuds off his catering truck, when Detectives Plummer and Black drove up, got out, approached him  and arrested him for a bank robbery he had never heard of. As his wife and three young daughters looked on from the living room window, he was handcuffed and driven off.

Thirteen witnesses testified at the trial of US vs. DePalma on February 13, 1968, that DePalma was in the City of Commerce, 15 miles from the Mercury Savings and Loan office, at the time of the robbery serving them lunch from his truck. But it wasn’t enough.

The defense could have been stronger. DePalma’s attorney, Morris Lavine, a 70-year-old court veteran, chose not to ask for a continuance of the trial in order to produce a key witness, DePalma’s employer, Donald Blackmore, who was in a yacht race in Acapulco at the time. Blackmore could have testified he was with DePalma on his route stop in the City of Commerce 20 minutes before the robbery. He could remember the date, as other witnesses did, for it was DePalma’s second day back on the job, the week following Thanksgiving. Lavine also chose not to put DePalma on the stand so that he could deny ever having been in the Mercury Bank- a statement Lavine felt would probably incriminate DePalma more in light of the fingerprint. By keeping DePalma silent, Lavine could argue DePalma’s fingerprint must have been left some other day. The decision was not without reason, but as a result the jury never heard DePalma deny his guilt or explain how he became a suspect.

The federal judge, Charles Carr (whose dictatorial control of the courtroom has been labeled on other occasions in US appellate decisions as “petty tyranny”), did not help the defense any either. As Lavine put the 13 defense witnesses on, one after another, late in the afternoon; halfway through, Carr, in front of the jury, asked, “How many more have you got out there, counsel?” Lavine became apologetic and rushed the witnesses through by 4:30 p.m.

The prosecution did the most harm, of course. Both Mercury tellers, Cazares and Godwin, identified DePalma as the culprit. Sergeant Bakken, who made the “fingerprint discovery,” and an FBI agent, George Edward Goodreau, swore that the fingerprint lifted from the counter by Cate was DePalma’s, and compared it with prints of DePalma’s taken after his arrest.

The testimony of Cazares Godwin was tainted. Six years later, both witnesses confirmed to this writer that before they testified  FBI agent Goodreau had shown them courtroom displays indicating DePalma’s fingerprint was on the counter and reassured them, saying, “Don’t worry about your testimony; we’ve got the right man.” So if either teller had a doubt that DePalma was the robber, Goodreau had removed it.

The US Attorney, Robert Browning, in an admitted ploy to get the last word in, placed his chief witness, FBI agent Goodreau, on the stand as a rebuttal witness to the defense testimony, instead of as part of the People’s opening case. (The opening case is supposed to establish guilt before defense testimony challenges it.) Thus, the jury’s last memory would be of a man with 27 years of fingerprint expertise pointing out similarities between the print allegedly lifted from the counter and DePalma’s left index fingerprint. Carr raised hell with Browning for the maneuver, but allowed the testimony, not as rebuttal, but as reopening of the People’s case. Lavine waived a mistrial on the error, thus eliminating this as a possible avenue of appeal.

DePalma’s witnesses, Browning told the jury, were victims of the “power of suggestion”; they could not possibly remember who served them on a given day. But Browning misstated the evidence in his closing argument. He stated that Cazares had testified that the robber held the gun with his right hand and returned it to his right pocket, implying that his left hand was free. The alleged DePalma print was taken from that portion of the counter opposite the left hand of the man facing it, yet supposedly matched the left index finger. Neither Lavine nor Carr caught the error. Cazares had in fact said that the gun was held in the left hand and put in the left pocket. To his credit, Browning was not out to convict an innocent man. He just believed DePalma guilty. Consequently, he didn’t want to lose– and he didn’t.

After the verdict, Carr said, “The press reports [it] when we give probation. They ought to report that I am going to give this man 15 years. It might deter bank robbers.”

“At the trial I felt it would be OK,” DePalma recalled later. “I didn’t do it. When Cazares said it was me, it was like being hit with a sledgehammer. When Godwin got up I got angry. I had never seen her in my life and she was talking like she couldn’t be mistaken. So sure. I got hot. But I knew screaming and hollering wouldn’t do any good. After the verdict I felt railroaded. My mother started crying and the judge ordered the bailiff to remove her. I felt like saying, ‘Judge that’s my mother and if anyone takes her out, I’ll escort her.’ At home I kept up hope, though. I thought, ‘This is a beautiful country’. It has to turn out all right.’”

John Bond is a 53-year-old, blond, blue-eyed defense investigator, who keeps fit with mile runs and surfing.  A former New Jersey cop, he came out West almost 20 years ago, and became the first investigator hired by the Orange County Public Defenders Office, a good job for a man who saw himself as more social worker than cop.

In 1969, Bond opened up a private office in Santa Ana. One of his first clients, whom he took on without a fee, was a man convicted, sentenced, at liberty only by virtue of appeal bond, but still insisting innocence– William DePalma.

Bond agreed to take the case, even though DePalma was broke from trial and appeal expenses under one condition: that DePalma pass a lie detector test given by a polygraph expert of Bond’s choosing. He did.

And so Bond faced the seeming contradiction: if DePalma had never been in the Mercury Savings and Loan office, how did his fingerprint get in there? He concluded he couldn’t solve the riddle unless he first found the real bank robber.

After hours of searching through clippings in newspaper morgues, Bond found descriptions of over 100 bank robbers with a similar method operandus. And he found one Robert Eads, a bank-heist vet who got nabbed when a novice partner he had taken on accidently set off a smoke bomb in a getaway car. Eads, he discovered, had confessed to 25 bank robberies– including the Crocker-Citizens job in Whittier that first made DePalma a suspect. Bond took a photo of Eads to the Mercury tellers but they still insisted DePalma was the man. So Bond returned to the newspaper morgues.

Knowing that Eads, not DePalma, had done the Crocker robbery spurred Bond on. He sought to examine what DePalma’s trial lawyer never had– the Buena Park police reports. Under federal law, unlike, California state law, prosecutors do not have to avail their entire investigation to defense attorneys. Reports of witnesses interviewed and their statements can be withheld. Buena Park refused to cooperate with Bond, but he located necessary reports  in the clerk’s office of the Fullerton Municipal Court– where DePalma had been originally arraigned before it was discovered that the Mercury bank was federally insured, giving the federal court jurisdiction. Through these reports, Bond learned that Cazares had failed at first to pick out DePalma’s picture from a group of photos. Another witness, Mary Ghan, who worked across the street from the Mercury Bank, had reported seeing a man in clothing similar to that described by the two tellers walk towards the bank just before the robbery.  She reported that the man wore sunglasses and appeared to be Oriental. Both Cazares and Godwin claimed the suspect was Mexican. At the trial Godwin said she had thought the suspect was Italian. DePalma is Russian–Italian.

But Bond failed to turn up one item that would eventually prove to be of more than casual interest. It appeared in a local Buena Park newspaper shortly after DePalma’s trial. Buena Park’s police chief boasted in print that in the month-and-a-half since one Sergeant James D. Bakken had become their crime lab head, the lab had made as many fingerprint identifications as it had in all of the preceding three years.

On April 16, 1970, James Alexander Graham and Harold Joseph Hicks were apprehended attempting an armed robbery of a market in Buena Park. Officer David Nelsen dusted a rifle found at the scene for prints. Not finding any, he wiped it clean and gave it to Sergeant Bakken. Later Bakken claimed he found both suspects’ prints on the rifle. At the preliminary hearing Nelsen told Detective Sergeant Black, again the investigating officer, that he would not testify to lifting prints. He would not commit perjury. Later the point became moot as the defendants pleaded guilty – a case of “No harm, no foul.” But, outraged, Nelsen quit the Buena Park department and joined another city’s force. There Bond contacted him, and he learned about Bakken.

Meanwhile, it was time to try for a new trial. DePalma had to pay Lavine another $1500 for the motion, bringing the attorneys total fee on the case to $13,000. But Bond thought Lavine was uninterested and actively dodging him. When Lavine inquired as to what property DePalma’s father owned, DePalma fired him. Lavine, however, would not return the last check for $1500.

Joel Ball, another 70-year-old trial vet, took over. Like Bond, he took it free: “pro bono”– in the public’s interest. On November 30, 1970, he requested a new trial. He presented Mary Ghan to Judge Carr and she told him that DePalma was not the man she had seen; he also presented Donald Blackmore and other evidence developed by Bond. Ernestine Cazares admitted once passing over DePalma’s photo and later in a note wrote, “I’ve been thinking about this over and over and I just can’t be sure in my mind he was the man…”

Ball attacked the fingerprint with an affidavit of an expert, William Harper. Fingerprints are formed by dusting until prints, left by oil in fingers, appear. Then they are lifted with a wide strip of Scotch tape and sealed on clear acetate. Harper said the lift in question looked odd, for in addition to DePalma’s print, there was only one other print – a darker, unidentifiable – on the acetate; this was unusually light traffic for a supposedly well–travelled bank counter. (No check could be made of the counter itself, as it had long before been dismantled, when the Mercury Savings and Loan relocated.)

Carr denied the new trial. “I read the chances of fingerprint being duplicated or one out of millions,” he said.

Although he was present at the hearing, Nelsen never took the stand. Ball didn’t think Carr would listen to rumors about Bakken in other cases. But a month later, Bond wrote to Carr, telling him Nelsen’s story of Bakken’s so–called discovery of prints on the rifle in the Graham–Hicks case. Bond advised Carr that Nelsen and several Buena Park officers would meet with him at his convenience. Carr did not respond. Bond then took Nelsen’s story to the local FBI agent in Orange County, Jim Conway, but he, too, refused to act, saying it was in the court’s hands, not his.

On August 5, 1971, DePalma, his last appeal lost, was picked up at work and taken by car, handcuffed to two other prisoners, on a three–day trip to Mac Neill Island penitentiary in Steilacoom, Washington, to begin what would be the most agonizing part of his seven–year ordeal. During his stay, two old cons taught DePalma how to survive. The lesson was simple: keep your mouth shut and mind your own business. Occasionally, he would see floors bloodstained from an altercation and he once got a glimpse of a prisoner who hanged himself in his cell. One prisoner jumped him on the grounds, and another threatened his life. Back home, his family went on welfare.

DePalma made a close friend in prison, a man who worked with him in the furniture shop. DePalma knew him only by a nickname at first, but ironically he turned out to have a real name that DePalma was familiar with – Robert Eads. Advised of DePalma’s plight, Eads became apologetic. But he also stated that he did not commit the Mercury Bank job.

In October of 1971, DePalma was denied parole and told he could apply again in two years.

“When I arrived, I looked up at the penitentiary,” DePalma recalls. “It looked like something out of a horror movie. The boat ride over was sickening, like the boat was going into the water, down, down, down… Once inside, the gate slams shut and you know you’ve had it. I was scared. A lost soul. I thought of the movies on TV – homosexuals, guards beating prisoners, everything. The cells always stunk. A man would take a crap right in front of you… The food was garbage – made eating out of my truck like eating at a God-darned restaurant. Spaghetti one day, spaghetti soup the next… All that’s talked about is crime. The place is a university of crime.”

Meanwhile Bond’s sense of justice was tearing. He hit the newspaper morgues again, determined to find the bank robber.

Bond joined the recently formed Federal Public Defender’s Office in Los Angeles with the proviso that he could still work the DePalma case. In September of 1972 that office was officially appointed to represent DePalma and the case was assigned to Tom Pollack, a young, dark–haired and mustached NYU law graduate who had left O’Melveny &  Myers, perhaps Los Angeles’ largest law firm, to become a public defender.

Pollack decided that the fingerprint had to be attacked. Reading the trial transcript, he noted that Officer Cate had testified that the prints on the bank counter had been photographed before being lifted – a normal procedure to preserve evidence in case prints are damaged in lifting, and a way of showing exact print location. Immediately Bond searched for the photos. Buena Park reported that they were not on file – which was unusual since evidence is normally kept, in the event that an appellate court orders a new trial. Neither the US Attorney’s office nor the FBI had the photos. Washington sent, instead, seven photos of fingerprints Cate had lifted at the Mercury Bank. Each photo was of two lifts. Pollack didn’t know it yet, but in these photos was crucial evidence.

Bond, meanwhile, reexamined Bakken’s trial testimony, particularly his claim that he had formerly headed the crime lab for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department in Minnesota. Bond telephoned Lincoln County and the sheriff there broke out laughing. He had only three deputies, had never heard of Bakken, and wouldn’t know what to do with a crime lab if he had one, he said. And he had been sheriff since 1954. In the transcript Bakken also stated that he had taken criminology courses through the University of Minnesota extension. The school had never heard of him.

Bond started thinking of the dark fingerprint above DePalma’s on the otherwise clear lift. It made sense to him that if someone had forged DePalma’s print, that the person would probably put at least one other print on the lift to make it look as though it was taken from a publicly used counter. Maybe, Bond hypothesized, the culprit was stupid enough to use his own finger to make the second print. He took a photo of the lift over to Ron Linegar, also of the Buena Park Crime Lab, for a fingerprint comparison. His hunch turned out right. The dark fingerprint belonged to James D. Bakken.

On this evidence, after six years, the Buena Park Police Department decided to listen to Bond and launch its own investigation into Bakken.

William DePalma was surprised in the prison visitors’ room. He hardly recognized the man whom he hadn’t seen for two-and-a-half years – John Bond. His eyes slowly opened, like Rip Van Winkle awakening from a long sleep, as Bond spoke of his discoveries. “Tell me again,” DePalma repeated numbly, “tell me again.”

The news got even better. In November 1973, DePalma was granted a parole unexpectedly and set to be released December 18. It is rare for a person serving a 15–year life sentence to be paroled after only two–and –a–half years. DePalma had desperately been trying to convince prison authorities of his innocence but always met with the reply, “That’s what they all say.” He even asked for Sodium Penthonol –“truth serum”– but was refused. Finally a prison official informed him that their job was only to see that he served his sentence, that the courts determined guilt. But DePalma had become a model prisoner, a community leader, a man some “hacks” (guards) thought didn’t belong. A psychologist, Dr. Eric Thompson, befriended DePalma and eventually came to believe in his innocence. He spoke for DePalma at his 1973 parole review. At DePalma’s interview, a parole board member said, “So you’re an innocent man. You’re the first I’ve met up here”.

On November 14, 1973, an Orange County grand jury indicted James D. Bakken for perjury and falsifying evidence in a 1970 marijuana possession case of John D. Snyder. Specifically, Bakken had placed Snyder’s fingerprint on a clear plastic bag full of pot. It was one of six cases in which Buena Park’s internal affairs department found evidence of misconduct by Bakken.

When Orange County Crime Lab criminologist Larry Ragel, a man who boasts that his lab is “middle of the road” (i.e., not prosecution–oriented), was asked if he could detect a manufactured fingerprint he responded, “I’d have to have a look at it.”

Ragel put DePalma’s print and the darker Bakken print from the lift under a microscope and found that, visually, their makeup was totally dissimilar. This meant that different dusting powders had been used. After several tests failed to show what compound had made the DePalma print, Ragel decided to look at Xerox toner powder – which can be lifted from a Xerox copy with tape just as a fingerprint powder is lifted from an object. Ragel lifted powder from a Xerox copy and under the microscope found it to be visually the same as DePalma’s print. Photo blowups confirmed it.

But what did that prove? Bakken could have accidentally touched the bank counter and for some reason Cate may have put fingerprint powder on his print and toner powder on DePalma’s. Cate could no longer say what he did. In 1971 he attempted to arrest a child molestation suspect and was shot to death. But Ragle located the key. He placed the lift (since Scotch tape is transparent) over DePalma’s 1957 fingerprint card – the one that Sergeant Plummer had sent Sergeant Black in 1967 – and DePalma’s print matched perfectly with the left index finger on the card. They were exact duplicates. Also, some small specks on the tape, previously unidentifiable, fit exactly over ridges in the fingerprint on the left index finger on the card, indicating that if DePalma’s latent print was lifted from a Xerox copy of the card, the Scotch tape inadvertently lifted a few particles from the adjacent fingerprint at the same time. The duplication was confirmed with 11–by–14 positive–negative blowups of the latent print and card. Other tests indicated that the chances of such duplication where about the same as the chances of two people having identical fingerprints. And so Ragel made his report: DePalma’s latent print was a Xerox copy of his 1957 fingerprint.

On November 21, 1973, Pollack and his boss, John Van De Kamp, went to the US Attorney’s office to present Ragel’s finding and ask the government to agree to DePalma’s release from prison pending a hearing for new trial, as  there was really no reason why he should have to remain there until his December 18 parole date. But Darrel MacIntyre, who took over the prosecution of DePalma’s case after Robert Browning went to private practice, and his boss, William Keller, opposed the request.

Keller let it be known that most deputies in his office had no faith in John Bond. When Cazares’ letter of doubt about her identification came up, MacIntyre responded that her husband had asserted that Bond had intimidated her, by saying, “How does it feel to know you’ve helped send an innocent man away for 15 years?” The government’s position was: if DePalma got a new trial he would probably be reconvicted on the basis of two eyewitnesses and, under those circumstances, Carr might not reimpose sentence if DePalma only had 27 more days to serve. Keller thought DePalma was getting off lightly with so little time as it was, and he wanted DePalma to do every day of it. Xerox or no Xerox.

On December 18, 1973, DePalma came home, greeted at the airport by family and tears, like a POW returned.

“When my plane landed,” he remembers, “no bands played but it was still beautiful. Everyone cried. When I came into my house it finally hit me it was all over… The first time I visited Pollack, his office was having a Christmas party and I stood in the hallway when MacIntyre walks up to me friendly like. He didn’t recognize me. I remembered him from a day during my trial when, in an elevator, he said, ‘Hey DePalma, why don’t you plead guilty and get it over with. You know you’re guilty.’ This day when I told him who I was you could just see his eyes, got all screwed up, but Bond came over and separated us.”

The investigation continued. Robert Wagner, a co–worker of Ragle’s, looked at the seven photos of Cate’s lifts the FBI had sent to Pollack. He noticed that the upper lifts in the two photos were identical. Positive–negative blowups of each verified the match. When overlayed, even the air bubbles in the tape coincided. This meant the card was photographed, then the lower lift removed from the acetate, and a new lift placed on it and rephotographed. One of the lower lifts contained DePalma’s and Bakken’s prints. That both photos were sent to Washington can only be described as a culprit’s bungle.

Depalma’s print was then sent to the Aerospace Lab in Inglewood and placed in an ion microscope mass analyzer. Tests indicated that titanium, aluminum, and iron, three elements in the fingerprint powder, were present in Bakken’s print but not in DePalma’s. An electron microscope then produced photos at 1000X magnification, clearly distinguishing Xerox toner powder from fingerprint dust.

Because MacIntyre charged that Bond had intimidated Cazares into changing her testimony, Bond went to her residence and taped an interview. Both Cazares and Godwin, still working at banks, had moved to northern California. Cazares’ husband denied making the statement MacIntyre had credited him with. Ernestine herself said Bond had only told her that DePalma had passed a lie-detector test and when she repeated that to MacIntyre the prosecutor replied, “He said that just to get you confused.”

“I saw this movie on TV –‘Cry Rape’ – where three women identified a man and it turned out to be a look–alike,” she told Bond. “I’m very sensitive. I go to church every Sunday and pray that if I made a mistake he will get help, but I thought he was the right person.” Bond also interviewed Godwin. She said she hadn’t given the matter much thought.

Under federal law, newly discovered evidence will not support a motion for new trial unless offered within two years after the trial. Past that time it is necessary to seek a presidential pardon or show a Constitutional infirmity in the trial itself. Pollack tried the latter. He filed for a new trial claiming false evidence was admitted at the old one violating DePalma’s Fifth Amendment right not be deprived of liberty without “due process of law.” MacIntyre opposed, his brief correctly citing case law which says that to violate the Fifth Amendment the prosecution must know the evidence is false when it is offered. MacIntyre claimed the United States did not know. Pollack refiled with a novel argument logical enough to win: the 14th amendment applied the Fifth Amendment to “states.” Bakken was a state official, acted in that capacity, and knew his testimony was false when given.

There was never a ruling. On February 11, 1974, DePalma again went to court. Bakken was there, having been personally served by Bond, who had seated himself next to him. The hunter and the hunted. MacIntyre conceded the motion since a letter from the FBI said that DePalma’s print “appeared” to be toner powder, not fingerprint powder, although they couldn’t be sure of the “limited quantity present.”

Pollack still wanted his witnesses to testify anyway – to show Judge Carr and the world that DePalma was indeed framed. He asked Carr to hear the evidence and then review a motion made at the original trial for acquittal. He reasoned that if Carr had known the fingerprint was no good to begin with he would have granted the acquittal – and since that knowledge was barred by fraud, the motion should still be considered open to rule upon. But MacIntyre countered by moving that the indictment be dismissed. It surprised Pollack. Earlier, MacIntyre had said he would need Washington’s approval to dismiss. Now it seems he just didn’t want the evidence heard.

But Pollack did. As MacIntyre would only admit a doubt as to the fingerprint authenticity, Pollack asked Carr to listen to his oral summation of what his witnesses would have testified. Carr agreed to listen but would not look at any of the photos. Before leaving the bench, Carr, his head low, said, “Nobody ever said the system was perfect. That’s for the stargazers.”

Depalma was free and shaking hands. But not Bond. The investigator had already left, thinking of another client he also took on in 1967, Antonia Thomas – a Filipina immigrant incarcerated at Frentera State Prison, convicted of poisoning her infant son. For Bond she passed both lie-detector and hypnosis tests. He is sure he knows who the murder is and he has turned over his investigation reports to the district attorney’s office which has not acted yet. Another lifetime’s work. But Bonds vows, “By God, someday, somehow, I’m going to exonerate her.”

William Depalma is driving a catering truck again, although he still longs for sales or promotion job, to interact with people. Once at his truck he overheard a customer talking of his case and DePalma asked the man what the framed person looked like. The customer said, “Oh, I know what he looks like. I saw him on TV. I’d recognize him anywhere.”

His defense debts are about $20,000. Through an attorney, Robert Talcott, ironically the man who represented Eads when he confessed to the Crocker robbery, DePalma has filed an $11 million lawsuit against Bakken and Buena Park. At home he reacquaints himself with his family. “Inside, I’ve been torn up,” he says. “Before I was happy. Today I am not. I can’t say I ever will be again. But I can’t be too bitter. I’ve got a wife and three beautiful daughters. I can’t allow myself to go down the shitter.”

In April 1974, James D. Bakken pleaded guilty to perjury, a felony, in the Snyder case. After serving 90 days in Chino prison for a doctor’s examination, he was granted three years probation, a condition of which was that he spend one year in the county jail on the work–furlough program, meaning he can work on the outside and just spend his nights and weekends in jail. (In contrast, an Oakland judge recently sentenced a schoolteacher who committed perjury to protect a defendant–his nephew–to one-to-14 years in state prison, saying that perjury was a threat to our judicial system.)

Bakken’s attorney was George Savord, a lifetime friend who recently retired as police chief of Cyprus to run for Sheriff of Orange County. Bakken has never been prosecuted for his role in DePalma’s case, as federal law imposes a five–year statute of limitations to bringing an action for perjury. According to Bill Evans, the DA who handled the case, Bakken in all other cases had testified he was from Hennepin County, Minnesota. The court reporter in Depalma’s case told Evans it was possible that he may have misheard Bakken and incorrectly wrote “Lincoln County.” And so one of the keys that finally helped to crack the case may have been no more than a court reporter’s error. Also, Evans found that Bakken had taken police courses connected with the University of Minnesota. Bakken, said Evans, never lied about his credentials, but just exaggerated them. In most cases where Bakken fixed evidence, said Evans, sufficient evidence already existed to convict. Bakken just added the finishing touches “DePalma seems to be the only case he missed,” he said.


       The town had a small population in Minnesota. Less than 1000. A man that had moved there ran for Constable and won with a total of around 260 votes. The town took up of collection and bought him a police car. A siren was donated as well as garage to keep it in. At a town meeting, the new Constable reported that he helped get a cat out of the tree. The constables surprised everyone by suddenly residing. He wrote that he had found a new position in Orange County.


WILLIAM DE PALMA: “The jury must listen equally to the prosecution and defense and not sit and daydream as mine did. They must listen to the judge’s instructions on reasonable doubt and if a juror has any doubt whatsoever he’s got to vote not guilty. You understand? What happens is three may say not guilty… but the others talk them out of it. Stand on your feet! If you have doubt, stick to it. Guilt must be beyond all reasonable doubt.”

MARGE DEPALMA: “You are used to a man in the house and suddenly you are alone. And you must make decisions for the home and I will kids. You pray you are right. It’s hardest knowing he is innocent. It’s on your mind day by day. You clean house and it’s there. It’s still there today. It’s not going to be easy to get off my mind.”

TOM POLLACK: “The real horror is the kids. I think of my little girl, the things we do, and how his were without a daddy for two-and-a-half years… I think it mind–boggling that the prosecution in light of the evidence– produced by a county crime Lab, not defense attorneys – did not work to free this man. The government’s attitude was ‘I couldn’t care less’ and minimize the exposure of new evidence. It’s the old paranoia: ‘Don’t let defense attorneys get the best of you.’”

JOHN BOND: “The public doesn’t like to hear it but innocent people are in jail. We need a national organization to keep investigating cases after people are sentenced. As it is now they are forgotten.”

DARREL MACINTYRE: “In my heart I know DePalma is guilty. It was my duty to dismiss the indictment as the facts showed a reasonable doubt. But inside I know he did it.”

ERNESRTINE CAZARES: “DePalma was darker in the Polaroid. When I saw him there was some doubt but I felt I couldn’t be wrong. Sharon was absolutely sure. I can’t believe I was so wrong. I had heard identification testimony is bad… so many people look alike. I’ll never have the confidence to testify again.”

SHARON GODWIN: “Ernestine called and told me. Well, after all, I only looked at him for about 30 seconds…”

ROBERT BROWNING: “I don’t recall misstating evidence at the trial. If I did it wasn’t intentional. I was wrong putting the FBI agent on last; he belonged in the chief case. This is upsetting. I don’t want to talk further; I may be quoted out of context.”

MORRIS LAVINE: “I’ve tried many cases, winning more not putting a defendant on the stand than putting one on. Even if innocent the prosecutor can wiggle statements out making them sound guilty.”

DETECTIVE SERGEANT JOE PLUMMER: “I’m sick about the whole thing; it sheds a bad light on all of us. I felt I did the job I was supposed to do. I had no way of knowing. I would have to assume DePalma is innocent from the total evidence; however, there was eyewitness testimony.”

MAXWELL GROSS (juror): “I was dubious at first. I question if the fingerprint was sufficient to convict with those people saying he was working at the time. But I’m no expert juror, just an average guy. I voted not guilty and brought up my doubt but I was talked out of it, reminded of the two eyewitnesses. The evidence was stacked. I would have liked to have heard his version from his own mouth and sized him up. It’s intuitive, I know, but that’s what you do in the business world and I’m rarely wrong… This was a horrible but then it goes on all the time, doesn’t it? It wasn’t the first such case and I imagine it won’t be the last. I’m surprised Mr. Lavine, with his reputation, could let this occur. If he had any faith in this guy or did his job he shouldn’t have lost. I could have done better and I’m no lawyer. He didn’t go very deep into the case… He wasn’t any good at all.”

LARRY RAGLE: “Small labs are popping up and I’ve always feared some guy would get pressured to make a case and, lacking evidence, would create it. But I never thought about a guy making a practice of it. Working here, we see many horrible things – mass murders, child molestation. First it shocks you, and then you accept it. So I guess this didn’t shock me as much as it should have.”

IRVING BACH (juror): “I vaguely remember serving on a trial and there was a fingerprint. That’s all.”