A Story of Murder and The Crime That Wasn’t

By Edward Humes

An EXcerpt
Dutton Books - Penguin/Random House Publishers
Copyright by Edward Humes

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April 9, 1989

The banging and screaming began shortly after midnight, fists rattling the front door, a woman’s voice crying and moaning for help.

Shirley and Bob Robison, ready for bed and relieved that the heat wave plaguing Los Angeles that week had abated at last, stumbled through the dark house and threw open the door.

On the welcome mat stood their young neighbor—disheveled in her nightgown and housecoat, shaking and wailing. “My babies,” Jo Ann Parks gasped. “Help them, please, please. They’re still in there!”

The Robisons needed no explanation for what “there” meant. A garish orange light had painted their white stucco house the color of glowing coals. The weedy driveway normally obscured by darkness at this hour was lit up, and the Robisons could feel the furnace-hot air pumping up its length like a chimney stack. At the back end of the driveway, the converted garage apartment blazed.

The twenty-three-year-old Parks, her husband, and their three small children had moved into this dingy rental in the cramped Los Angeles suburb of Bell less than a week before, clothes and knickknacks and photo albums still piled in half-unpacked boxes, the place a mess. Now the apartment crackled and hissed, flames flaring as bright as camera flashes in the darkness, revealing gouts of black smoke pouring up into a leaden, starless sky.

“My children!” Parks shrieked. “They’re in back!”

Bob hesitated. He was too old for this, he thought. At fifty-seven, his health wasn’t the greatest. He was bone tired, his job wearing him down day by day. But . . . three little kids. Three little kids trapped in a burning house. Somebody had to do something. Staring at the doorway Parks had left open, he could see inside to the front room of the apartment, the master bedroom, flames and smoke roiling inside. He told his wife to call 911. Then Bob Robison took a deep breath, held it, and screwed up his eyes as if he were jumping off the high dive. He walked to the door and disappeared inside.

The two women gawked at the doorway, then ran back into the front house to phone for help. Then they raced back to the driveway, waiting for the fire engines, waiting for Bob, waiting for the children to emerge. Parks started moving toward the doorway into the burning house, too, but Shirley grabbed her from behind, shouting, “No, Jo Ann, don’t!” She wrapped her arm around Park’s shoulders and would not let go, certain a distraught woman could not survive long in that house in her flimsy summer night clothes. “You can’t go in there.”

Parks seemed to be bordering on hysteria to Shirley, but the younger woman heeded the command and didn’t fight to free herself. After that, she made no more moves toward entering the house.

“Oh, God,” Parks moaned a few seconds later. She spoke so softly, Shirley had trouble hearing what she said next. But it sounded something like, “I hope Ronnie wasn’t playing with matches again.”

“What was that?” Shirley asked. Ronnie Jr. was the Parkses’ oldest child and only boy, four years old, clever, occasionally mischievous. Was Jo Ann really revealing that the fire could be Ronnie’s fault? Or was she just gibbering her fears and guesses in a moment of hysteria? Shirley couldn’t tell. Nearly three decades would go by, her husband long passed, and still she would wonder just what Jo Ann Parks had said in that moment, and what, if anything, it meant.

Shirley pulled her eyes away from the fire, which seemed to be growing more intense with each passing second. She asked, “Jo Ann? What did you say Ronnie did?”

Parks shook her head, though whether that gesture came in negation, regret at her words, or simply to clear her head, Shirley once again could not tell. Jo Ann had seemed a bit odd to Shirley, no doubt about that. But this did not seem like the time to press the point, not with the apartment aflame and three little children in jeopardy. So Shirley just hugged the younger woman again around the shoulders, stayed close, and murmured words of comfort.

“My babies,” Parks said. “Will he find them? Will they be okay?” She kept repeating variations of this. It sounded almost like a chant.

Shirley didn’t know what to say. The apartment, with its 528 square feet of living space, had become an inferno. The heat was growing painful just standing in the driveway. She could not see her husband through the open door and feared he might not be able to save himself, much less three kids. And where were the police? Where were the fire trucks? Had it been only seconds since she called 911? It seemed like many minutes to her. It seemed like forever.

“Yes,” Shirley finally said. “Yes. Help is on the way. They’re going to be all right.” But she didn’t really believe it, not for a second.

Present  Day

There is a room on the ground floor of the California Western School of Law in downtown San Diego sometimes known as “the Pit.” The size of the average apartment living room, the Pit can feel cramped, hot, crowded, and loud. The walls are lined with computer stations and desks covered with stacks of legal papers and correspondence, everything in a constant state of churn. On the floor in the room’s center sit six laundry-basket-sized US Postal Service mail cartons spilling over with envelopes of every shape and thickness. The Pit more closely resembles a direct-mail boiler room than what it actually is: a critical part of a most unusual law office.

Somewhere in those boxes of mail, buried inside layers of legalese or handwritten rants, there is the story of an innocent woman or man languishing in prison, a cold closed case waiting to be teased into the light and reopened. The Pit is one of the few places in the country where this has an actual chance of happening. It is the gateway to representation by the California Innocence Project, part of nationwide web of similarly minded nonprofit operations, neither the largest nor the smallest, dedicated to freeing people from unjust imprisonment. And as it prepared to take on Jo Ann Parks’s case, the California Innocence Project had been on a roll, having freed twenty-eight men and women from wrongful convictions for murder, rape, and other serious cases across the past decade.

Project interns and volunteers find many of those cases by digging through the six postal boxes, which hold the weekly mail from defense lawyers, mothers, fathers, spouses, friends, and convicts begging for a champion to prove someone’s innocence. As fast as they can be emptied, a new batch arrives to fill the mailboxes anew.

A cursory review by the volunteers in the Pit weeds out the cases that have no chance of success, which means most of this sad, mad influx—two to three thousand a year—never get past the boiler room stage. These are the letters that reveal cases with exhausted appeals, or convictions supported by overwhelming evidence of guilt, or that are merely angry diatribes about the real, perceived, and fanciful corruption within the legal system. Many letter writers fume about some legitimate but minute contradiction in the evidence against them in an otherwise solid prosecution, not understanding that the flaw or lie or inconsistency they have spotted has to be so huge that, if corrected, likely would change a jury’s decision from guilty to not guilty. This is a hurdle only a very few can clear. Other convict correspondents will actually admit they are guilty but that they’d appreciate the change of scenery and relief from boredom a court hearing would provide. Desperation, loneliness, and boredom, rather than sincere pleas of innocence, motivate many of these letter writers. While such qualities may be grounds for sympathy, they do not make for successful appeals.

The hardest entries in the slush pile are the anguish-laden letters from parents attacking the evidence against their children, the facts no parent can bear to accept about son or daughter, the witnesses that surely must be lying, the DNA evidence that can’t possibly be correct. These letters often consist of painstakingly long handwritten recitations of the perfidy of the authorities and their twisting of the facts of the case, all highly colored by the blindness only love and grief can sustain. These are the most heartbreaking letters to reject. But sorrow, no matter how profound, will not open a prison cell door, either.

The mail that remains after this basic weeding of the pile moves on to progressively more detailed layers of review until the tidal wave is reduced to a slim stack of possible clients worthy of being more deeply researched.

“She trusted the legal system,” read one typical letter that survived this stage. “She had always respected authority . . . But once the local authorities began looking for a crime, all objectivity was lost—that their theories were adjusted to suit their mind-set was immaterial, as long as they ‘had their man.’”

The letter was fairly typical in its claim of an innocent person betrayed by an official rush to judgment. But it was highly unusual in another respect: It came not from a convict or a family member, but from a forensics expert who had testified for the defense in a murder case. He had been devastated when a guilty verdict was returned, and he had devoted his own time and money to try to help. His analysis of the case and the proof of innocence he had offered at trial should have been enough to win the case, he complained, but he had been undermined by what he felt certain had been poor lawyering on the defense and overzealousness by the prosecution. Instead of providing decisive testimony, he wrote, he became “nothing more than window dressing going through the motions.”

This was interesting—as much for the source of the correspondence as for the information it contained. The letter writer was a twenty-five-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department who had spent his career catching arsonists, not setting them free, which gave him a level of credibility that was quite rare among the stacks of letters that flood the Pit. And so it was, way back in 2001, that a letter about the People of the State of California v. Jo Ann Parks survived the initial cut at the California Innocence Project.

At this stage, law students and interns gather background information for each remaining letter. Those that aren’t winnowed out after that level of scrutiny are then presented at a roundtable meeting with the staff attorneys—there are seven at the California Innocence Project—where the merits and flaws in each case are discussed. And out of those, a rare few, twenty to twenty-five cases a year, survive to be assigned for a full legal and investigative review. The review determines which of the remaining cases, if any, are suitable candidates for filing the innocence project’s primary legal tool, the habeas corpus petition, based on an ancient legal principle that has shielded individuals from government overreach since the days of William Penn. Each habeas petition absorbs a significant chunk of the project’s finite resources, so choosing well is critical.

These final calls can be agonizing because it’s just not enough to find evidence that a potential client is innocent. Contrary to public perception, the courts do not generally recognize even overwhelming evidence of innocence as a valid reason to open the cell door for someone after a guilty verdict has been rendered. There also must be legal proof that the accused did not get a fair trial leading up to a guilty verdict. The two ideas—Are they innocent? and Did they get a fair trial?—can overlap, but they are not one and the same. As the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia repeatedly pointed out—approvingly—the US Constitution does not forbid the execution of an innocent man so long as he received a fair trial first.

Jo Ann Parks ran this review gauntlet not once but three times.

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