In the early morning hours of January 1, 1985, Vincente Gonzalez and his wife, Maria, were driving to pick up their children from a babysitter after attending a New Year’s Eve concert when two men attempted to carjack them in Venice, California.
Vincente was killed by a shotgun blast and a necklace was ripped from Maria’s neck.
Shortly after the murder, a woman named Denise Powell told police that two street gang members that she knew, Timothy Atkins, 17, and Ricky Evans had bragged that they had “offed” Gonzalez.
Atkins and Evans were arrested and charged with murder and armed robbery. Evans was alleged to be the gunman and Atkins his accomplice. In October, 1985, while awaiting trial, both were assaulted in their cells and Evans, 25, was beaten to death—allegedly because other gang members believed they were going to blame someone else for the crime.
In July 1987 Atkins went on trial. Powell could not be located to testify, but her testimony from a preliminary hearing about the alleged confession was presented to the jury. Maria Gonzalez identified Atkins as the man who ripped the chain from her neck and covered her eyes as her husband was murdered. Atkins was convicted of second degree murder and two counts robbery and sentenced to 32 years to life in prison.
In 2001, Atkins, having lost his appeals, wrote a letter to the California Innocence Project at California Western Law School in San Diego. In February 2005, Wendy Koen, a second-year law student working on project cases located Powell at a drug rehabilitation center.
Powell told Koen that she had lied at the preliminary hearing. She said that she had initially told neighbors that she knew who committed the crime because she wanted to impress them with her knowledge of gang members. When police were tipped off and questioned her, she said made up a story because she was using cocaine at the time and police threatened to charge her with a narcotics offense if she didn’t provide information.
On February 8, 2007, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan granted Atkins’ state petition for writ of habeas corpus and granted a new trial. Tynan ruled that Powell’s testimony at the preliminary hearing was “highly questionable, if not totally unreliable.”
Atkins was released on February 9, 2007. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges on April 6, 2007. In August 2007, Atkins filed a claim for compensation from the state's compensation board, but the claim was denied.
In August 2014, the same judge who granted Atkins' petition for a writ of habeas corpus found him "factually innocent," making him eligible for up to $800,000 in state compensation.
– Maurice Possley