Monday, June 24, 2024

Man wrongfully convicted of 1983 Long Beach murder poised to get $3 million settlement

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A man who spent 37 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted for a 1983 murder and robbery in Long Beach is poised to receive a $3 million settlement from Los Angeles County.

The county Claims Board recommended Monday that the Board of Supervisors settle a lawsuit filed by 62-year-old Samuel Bonner, whose conviction was overturned in 2019 due to prosecutorial misconduct.

Andrew M. Stein, an attorney who represents Bonner, declined to discuss the pending settlement. Bonner, a truck driver who lives in California’s Central Valley, could not be reached for comment. He has been free since 2019, when Superior Court Judge Daniel Lowenthal ordered his release and would later declare him factually innocent.

Bonner’s case began on Nov. 11, 1982, when he agreed to drive an acquaintance, Watson Allison, to Rose Park in Long Beach to meet with a man named Leonard Polk, according to court records.

An undercover police officer followed Bonner’s gray Ford because it looked suspicious, he said, and noticed Allison talking to a bicyclist, Polk, while the vehicle was idling at an intersection, records show. The officer watched as Polk and Allison walked into a nearby apartment unit. Bonner did not get out of the vehicle and drove away, records state.

About 15 minutes later, the undercover officer and two residents observed Allison leave the apartment building several times, carrying items and placing them in Polk’s car, before driving away in the vehicle alone.

Neighbors then entered Polk’s apartment and found that he had been shot and killed, court records say.

Bonner and Allison were arrested for the robbery and murder of Polk. Allison was believed to be the gunman, but Bonner was charged under the state’s felony murder rule, which allowed prosecutors to charge someone with murder if he was involved in a felony resulting in a homicide.

Police searched Bonner’s vehicle and home but did not find any items belonging to Polk and, indeed, there would be little, if any evidence, linking Bonner to Polk’s apartment, records show.

Allison and Bonner were tried separately, and Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Kurt Seifert advanced different theories of the killing — and the gunman’s identity — at each, records show.

At Bonner’s trial, Seifert called on a prolific jailhouse informant known as Michael Hayes, whose real name was Charles Jones, to testify against Bonner.

Two Long Beach police detectives had coached Hayes, who was awaiting trial on two homicides, to falsely testify that Bonner, while they were both in jail, had confessed to him that he had killed Polk, alleged a lawsuit filed against Long Beach police.

Following Hayes’ agreement to testify in Bonner’s case and two others, one of his homicide charges was reduced to manslaughter, for which he received a four-year prison sentence.

However, Hayes’ true name, complete rap sheet, and the benefits provided to him by Seifert in exchange for testifying were never disclosed to Bonner or his attorney.

“To the contrary, the prosecution knowingly allowed Mr. Hayes to lie about his name, convictions and benefits on the stand,” U.S. District Court Judge Christina A. Snyder said in a ruling on a motion connected to Bonner’s civil suit against the two former Long Beach detectives.

Bonner was represented at trial by Ron Slick, a defense lawyer nicknamed “Dr. Death” because many of the capital murder defendants he has been appointed to represent have been sent to death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Slick refused to permit Bonner to testify during trial and presented no witnesses in Bonner’s defense, the DPIC said.

Seifert dropped the capital murder charge against Bonner, who was convicted of robbery and felony murder. Allison was sentenced to death. That sentence was overturned and Allison was resentenced in 2012 to 25 years to life.

On July 8, 2019, after Bonner had served about 37 years in prison, Judge Lowenthal vacated Bonner’s convictions, finding that “egregious prosecutorial misconduct” severely violated his ability to receive a fair trial.

Lowenthal found Seifert’s failure to provide Hayes’ full rap sheet to Bonner and his attorney and to inform them that Hayes had perjured himself constituted a Brady violation, which requires the prosecution to disclose to the defense any evidence it has favorable to a defendant.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office appealed Lowenthal’s finding of factual innocence, but in April 2021 withdrew the appeal.

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