A man on death row since a double murder conviction in 1984 says dried blood on a work boot and a pink towel recovered from his home could prove his innocence, thanks to previously unavailable DNA technology, but LA County court employees mistakenly destroyed the evidence, it was reported Monday.
A judge must now determine what, if anything, should be done to remedy the error, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Scott Pinholster's attorney has asked for a hearing on how the destruction happened and says he will eventually ask for a new trial.
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Prosecutors, however, argue that a killer's life shouldn't be spared simply because of an innocent mistake by court staff, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Pinholster is one of 744 people awaiting execution in California -- the largest death row population in the country. Although the state hasn't put anyone to death since 2006, that could change, as voters passed a measure last year to speed up the process. Of the state's condemned inmates, about 20 have exhausted their appeals, putting them at the front of the line. Among them is Pinholster, according to The Times.
California law requires that courts keep evidence until after a death row inmate is executed or dies behind bars -- a safeguard put in place to preserve evidence for future testing. Mary Hearn, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Superior Court, told The Times that the court's procedure for destroying evidence, which was updated last year, now requires that staff first contact California's Supreme Court to confirm a death row inmate has died. The court, Hearn said, began a review of its procedure before learning of Pinholster's case.
Hearn said Pinholster, 58, is the only known example of evidence destruction in a case of a living death row inmate convicted in LA County.
The importance of DNA tests was highlighted last month when Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned a prisoner who spent 39 years behind bars for the 1978 killing of a young woman and her 4-year-old son in Simi Valley. After the prisoner, Craig Coley, exhausted his appeals years ago, a judge authorized the destruction of the crime-scene evidence. But a cold-case detective recently found the evidence and when tested, it helped clear Coley of the murders.
For Pinholster, prosecutors point to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes it difficult for prisoners to reverse convictions or reduce sentences unless they can show that evidence was destroyed in ''bad faith.'' In Pinholster's case, prosecutors argue, the destruction was the result of ''at most negligence, incompetency, recklessness,'' but not bad faith.
At his trial, a prosecutor argued that the blood on the boot and towel found in the defendant's Van Nuys apartment belonged to at least one of the two victims -- Thomas Johnson, 25, and Robert Beckett, 29. The men were stabbed and beaten to death at the Tarzana home of a marijuana dealer on Jan. 9, 1982.
Pinholster contends that the bloodstains came from his repeated intravenous use of heroin.