In 1987, 43-year-old James Thomas Hart was charged with sexually molesting his daughter during their visits to a camping resort in Napa, California.
Hart, who was divorced from the girl’s mother, went on trial in Napa County Superior Court in October 1990. His daughter testified that she went with Hart to the camping resort on numerous occasions. She told the jury that her father molested her only during visits to the resort and she was never molested when they were accompanied by another adult.
Deanne Kendall testified for the defense and said that during the period of the alleged molestations, she was dating Hart and she accompanied him every time he went to the camping resort with his daughter and her younger brother. According to Kendall, she told Hart’s lawyer that she had receipts that proved she was there as well as personal notes recorded in her calendars.
However, Hart’s lawyer did not obtain the documentary evidence or present it to the jury. Instead, he simply put Kendall on the witness stand to testify based on her personal recollection.
On October 29, 1990, Hart was convicted of sexually molesting his daughter and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
In 1996, after his conviction had been upheld by the California Court of Appeal, Hart filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. At a hearing on the petition, Kendall testified that she and Hart always stayed in a motel the night before they went to the camping resort and the following day, Hart’s ex-wife would drop off the girl and her younger brother.
Kendall said that she had motel receipts, personal entries in her calendars and receipts for groceries purchased on those weekends. Hart testified that when he urged his lawyer to introduce the documents, the lawyer responded, “Who’s the lawyer here, you or me?” and ignored Hart’s requests.
The prosecution argued the documentary evidence would not have changed the outcome of the trial and noted that Hart had admitted molesting the girl several years earlier and had sought psychological counseling, resulting in “a clean bill of psychological health in 1986.”
A U.S. District Court judge denied the petition and Hart appealed to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court and granted the petition in April 1999. By that time, Hart had served his sentence and had been released from prison.
The appeals court held that Hart had received a constitutionally unfair trial because his lawyer ignored Kendall’s records.
Those records, if introduced at trial, “would have convinced the jury that she was not simply a biased witness or one who was not in possession of all the facts; rather they would have probably been compelled to conclude that she was telling the truth: that she did, in fact, accompany Hart each time he brought (his daughter) to the ranch during the period covered by the charges.”
The court also rejected the prosecution’s arguments about Hart’s prior sexual abuse of the girl, noting that even if it were true, it did not occur as the prosecution had charged.
On January 6, 2001, the Napa County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges.
Hart later filed a lawsuit against his trial lawyer and the District Attorney’s Office, but the lawsuit was dismissed.
– Maurice Possley