On December 12, 1973, an off-duty Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy was shot and killed in a gas station bathroom by two men.
Police compiled a list of suspects, including men who lived in the neighborhood. An 11-year-old girl had been riding her bicycle nearby when the shooting occurred and provided a description of the men to the police.
Police focused on two men who lived in the neighborhood: Benny Powell, a 26-year-old who was known as a troublemaker, and Clarence Chance, a 23-year-old who hung out with Powell.
Though the 11-year-old could not initially identify Powell or Chance as the shooters, and neither man fit her first description, after repeated questioning, she identified Chance.
A third man who was an original suspect implicated Powell and directed police to a woman who said Powell confessed to her. She, in turn, led police to two teenage girls who had lived with her at the time, and they also said Powell confessed. A week before trial, a jailhouse snitch also claimed that Powell had confessed to him.
At trial, Chance claimed that he was being processed out of jail the day of the murder, but no one could confirm his exact release time.
In April 1975, a jury convicted both men of first-degree murder and they were sentenced to life in prison.
In 1987, Chance wrote a letter to Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based non-profit that investigates wrongful convictions. Intriged by Chance's claim that he was in jail at the time of the murder, James McCloskey, Centurion founder, began reinvestigating the case.
That investigation revealed that witnesses had identified Powell and Chance because of intense police pressure and threats. Police had also concealed evidence that the jailhouse snitch had been lying.
Attorneys for Powell and Chance filed petitions for habeas corpus. In March 1992, after the District Attorney’s Office agreed that police had concealed evidence, the habeas petitions were granted, the convictions were overturned and the charges were dismissed.
The two men filed civil wrongful conviction lawsuits and in 1993, the two men were each awarded $3.5 million from the city of Los Angeles--a total that would reach $9 million including interest with payouts scheduled over 30 years.
Powell was later convicted of sexually assaulting a woman in a motel and in 1995 was sentenced to 52 years in prison.
- Stephanie Denzel