California Supreme Court Vacates 25-Year-Old Murder Conviction

Unfortunately, one reminder of the fact that the criminal justice system often makes mistakes is the frequency of reports on convictions eventually overturned–sometimes years (or decades) after a conviction. For example, this week the The Recorder reported that the California Supreme Court issued a decision in In re Bacigalupo tossing out the 25-year-old murder conviction of Miguel Angel Bacigalupo based on evidence that a District Attorney investigator assigned to the case lied about and withheld evidence favorable to the defense.

Bacigalupo was convicted of the 1983 murders of a San Jose jewelry store owner and his brother after admitting to the crime. However, Bacigalupo, claimed that a Colombian drug cartel forced him to perform the murder by threatening to kill him and his family if he refused. Two years before Bacigalupo’s trial, Sandra Williams, the DA investigator, interviewed Gail Kesselman, a confidential informant romantically involved with a Colombian drug lord. Kesselman told Williams that she had driven the Columbian to meet Bacigalupo the night before the murder, presumably lending credence to Bacigalupo’s claim that the murder was forced by the Columbian cartel.

After an evidentiary hearing in 2001 conducted by retired Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Richard Arnason wherein both Kesselman and Williams testified, Amason found that Williams had instructed Kesselman to deny any knowledge of the killing. Amason further found that Joyce Allegro, the lead prosecutor on the Bacigalupo case and now a Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge, “knew about the San Francisco meeting as she testified that she thought information about the meeting had been provided in discovery.”

Justice Joyce Kennard wrote the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion, opining, “Without this evidence, the jury likely disregarded as self-serving and implausible petitioner’s claims to police that the Colombian Mafia had ordered him to kill the Guerrero brothers, and that his entire family would have been killed had he disobeyed that order.” Kennard also determined that Williams had “failed to disclose favorable and material evidence.”

Writing for a four-member concurrence, Justice Goodwin Liu emphasized Arnason’s finding that “Williams lied and induced Gale Kesselman to lie at the September 1985 ex parte hearing. That misconduct concealed the very information that would have led Judge Ambler to conclude that Kesselman was a material witness at least for the penalty phase of the trial.”

Bacigalupo’s relief was achieved using a legal mechanism known as habeas corpus. A writ of habeas corpus is a legal remedy taken after sentencing in a criminal matter and is often the last opportunity for a defendant to seek relief from his conviction. A habeas action may be pursued when the defendant is unsatisfied with the outcome of his appeal and has been refused certain other remedies. The difference between an appeal and a writ of habeas corpus is that the habeas action may address issues that could not be addressed on appeal.

Orange County criminal defense attorney Lauren K. Johnson has extensive experience protecting the rights of the accused, especially in the context post-conviction proceedings. If you have questions regarding California’s criminal law or your rights, contact attorney Lauren K. Johnson today.