Thursday, January 18, 2007
C.A. Vacates Conviction of Dead Man Due to Withheld Evidence
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
The Fifth District Court of Appeal yesterday vacated a now-deceased inmate’s 1986 murder conviction on the ground that prosecutors never disclosed tape-recorded pre-trial statements by key witnesses who identified him at trial as the killer.
The justices—in what Presiding Justice James A. Ardaiz, writing for the panel, acknowledged as a “highly unusual” step—entertained the merits of the petition for writ of habeas corpus filed by Mark Collin Sodersten, who died last June while serving a life sentence in the death of a Visalia woman.
“[W]hat happened in this case has such an impact upon the integrity and fairness that are the cornerstones of our criminal justice system, that continued public confidence in that system requires us to address the validity of petitioner’s conviction despite the fact we can no longer provide a remedy for petitioner himself,” Ardaiz wrote.
In Sodersten’s murder trial, prosecutors adduced no physical evidence directly linking him to Julie Wilson’s death and instead relied almost entirely on the eyewitness testimony of Wilson’s young daughter, Nicole, and her neighbor, Lester Williams, who knew Sodersten through a mutual friend and was over at the victim’s apartment drinking the night of the murder.
Julie Wilson had been found dead in her fire-damaged apartment with numerous stab wounds on her body, abrasions consistent with being hit by a cooking pan or utensil, and burns concentrated in her genital area.
Sodersten’s defense included testimony that the victim’s former live-in boyfriend, Mark Dare, was the “Mark” who killed her, based on Nicole Wilson’s identification of Dare from a photograph shortly after the murder. Dare had been arrested but released, though he was armed with a knife at the time, after police corroborated his claim that he was in a different city on the evening of the killing.
The child was certain that her mother’s killer was named “Mark,” because she had heard her mother scream his name while resisting his attack. However, after her initial identification of Dare, she changed her story and said that Sodersten—an acquaintance—was the “bad Mark” who “put the fire on my mom,” and Dare was the “good Mark.”
At trial, prosecutors relied on the child’s identification of Sodersten as the killer from a photograph, and led her to testify that she was very clear about who the two Marks were, and which one was the one who killed her mother.
Williams implicated Sodersten in the offense after first denying any knowledge of the murder.
Sodersten’s motion for a new trial was denied. Years after he lost his appeal, Sodersten filed a handwritten habeas petition with the Tulare Superior Court and, after that was denied, filed a petition with the Court of Appeal.
The Court appointed attorney Michael Cross to represent him, and while Cross was investigating Sodersten’s case, he discovered the existence of four tape-recorded interviews containing statements by Nicole Wilson and Lester Williams. The tapes had never been disclosed to Sodersten’s defense attorney.
Two of them, containing an interview of Nicole Wilson, were made by prosecutor Phillip Cline, who is now the Tulare County district attorney. On those recordings, the child was distracted and playful during the questioning and equivocated in her responses to questions about whether Sodersten or Dare was the killer.
Another tape contained an interview of Williams by police detectives, in which Williams denied recalling the events on the evening of the murder because he was high on drugs at the time.
The fourth tape contained as conversation between Sodersten and Williams in which Sodersten insisted that Williams knew he was no where near the crime scene on the night in question.
‘Trail of Dominoes’
In granting Sodersten’s habeas corpus petition, the appellate court said that the undisclosed tapes were material because they would have given the jury a totally different picture of Nicole Wilson as a witness. Moreover, the justices concluded, William’s statement that he was too high to remember anything the night of the crime would have changed jurors’ perception of him.
“[T]he prosecution’s case was a trail of dominoes. Once one fell, it took the others down with it. As Nicole and Lester Williams were the two pillars of the prosecution’s case, and given the nature and quality of the suppressed tapes, there is a reasonable probability that disclosure of those tapes would have brought the entire case tumbling down.”
Cross told the MetNews he was pleased with the ruling.
“These things need to be exposed so they don’t occur again,” he said, noting that the decision may still be appealed and is not yet final.
Neither Cline nor the Attorney General’s Office, which handled the appeal, could be reached for comment.
The case is In re Sodersten, F047425.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company