Playing by the rules

Even when a prosecutor tries to do everything right, the wrong person may still be convicted

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The American justice system is designed to err on the side of allowing the guilty to go free rather than incarcerate the innocent. But when an innocent defendant enters the criminal justice system, grievous mistakes can occur, even when prosecutors play by the rules. In some cases the prosecutor simply could not have foreseen the grievous mistake.

Gary Delsohn, a Sacramento Bee reporter, reached that conclusion after intensive research into the wrongful conviction of David Jonathan Quindt by trial prosecutor Mark Curry. Delsohn obtained special access to the Sacramento district attorney's office while researching a book, The Prosecutors: A Year in the Life of a District Attorney's Office, scheduled for publication by Dutton in August 2003. Delsohn's access gave him unique insight into the Quindt case, as well as a close look at the inner workings of a prosecutor's office.

Delsohn published an account of the Quindt case during 2002 in the quarterly magazine of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, an organization that gives financial support to journalists working on major projects. In an interview with the Center for Public Integrity, Curry said he has no quarrel with Delsohn's findings.

The crime leading to Quindt's murder conviction occurred Oct. 6, 1998, at a middle-class home in suburban Sacramento. The family living there grew high-quality marijuana, which several people knew about. Three armed men burst into the house at about 2:30 a.m., demanding the marijuana from the first occupants they saw—a 15-year-old girl who lived there and an 18-year-old male friend of her older brother. That male friend, Riley Haeling, a high school graduate working with disabled children, ended up dead, his body riddled with five bullets.

Police had no solid leads. A police sketch based on the description provided by the 15-year-old girl looked something like Quindt. Police were not totally surprised, knowing Quindt as a 21-year-old local punk who had started a suburban gang and worked at an equipment rental company. When police questioned Quindt, he stated his innocence. But Quindt started acting in what detectives considered a suspicious manner by calling repeatedly to ask what they knew and to suggest leads.

Several months later, Quindt's name surfaced again. The information came from a Quindt acquaintance who told police that before the murder, he gave Quindt two guns. The day after the killing, the informant said, Quindt asked a different acquaintance to dispose of the guns. Furthermore, the informant said, soon after the murder he had purchased marijuana from a Quindt friend, Anthony Salcedo, age 17, a high school student who also had access to the guns.

Four months after the murder, police arrested Quindt and Salcedo. Curry tried Quindt during November 1999. At trial, the 15-year-old girl identified Quindt as one of the shooters. On Dec. 2, after three days of deliberation, the jury voted guilty. The prosecutor planned to seek a life sentence for Quindt. Salcedo would be tried separately, soon. Curry went home to enjoy the Christmas season.

With Christmas over, Curry took a call in his office. The prosecutor heard the voice of a 20-year-old petty criminal who had fed useful information to Curry in the past. "I know who committed the murder," the caller told Curry. "It is a different group of people than you have in custody for the crime."

Curry had no reason to believe the informant, who seemed motivated by a $10,000 reward originally offered by the family of the murdered 18-year-old. Still, Curry took some extraordinary steps: he started checking into the informant's claims and he asked that Quindt's formal sentencing be postponed.

Bit by bit, the informant told Curry the identities of the alleged actual perpetrators, men whose names had never arisen during the original investigation.

Further detective work seemed to confirm the informant's account. The prosecutor's office asked that Quindt be released from prison, and charged four other men with the crime. Those charges led to convictions by juries. According to Delsohn and Curry himself, the prosecutor suffered no long-term repercussions from originally convicting the wrong man.

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