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Joel Alcox

Other California Exonerations with False Confessions
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On the evening of February 16, 1986, 49-year-old Thakorbhai Patel, the owner of the Lompoc Motel in Lompoc, California, was shot three times and killed in the motel lobby after walking in on two men who were burglarizing the motel’s untended cash register.

A motel guest, John Hermans, told police he heard four or five gunshots and ran out of his room to find Patel sitting against a doorway with blood on his chest. He asked what happened and Patel repeated what sounded like “Sanjo, Sanjo, Sanjo.” Patel was taken to a hospital where he died soon after.

By March 25, 1986, Lompoc Police Sgt. Harry Heidt was investigating an anonymous tip that came through the Secret Witness Program at the Lompoc Record newspaper saying that 18-year-old Richard Lothery and a person named John Wilcox was responsible for the murder at the Lompoc Motel. Heidt was not familiar with the name John Wilcox.

On the same day, Heidt spotted a group of people at a shopping center and recognized one of them, Kenny Miller, as a friend of Lothery. Heidt said he took Miller aside and asked if any of them was John Wilcox. When Miller said no, Heidt asked the others for identification. One of them was Joel Alcox. For some reason, he thought that Joel Alcox might be the "John Wilcox" who was reported to have been with Lothery at the scene of the shooting. In reviewing booking sheets, he noticed that 22-year-old Joel Alcox had been arrested on March 24—a day earlier—for being drunk in public.

Heidt asked Alcox to go to the police station. There, Heidt asked him where he was on February 16. Alcox said he was at a party at the home of a friend, Kelly Hughes, who lived on Vandenberg Air Force Base, located about 10 miles from Lompoc.

Heidt and Kenneth Ast, an investigator for the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, subjected Alcox to a grueling seven-hour interrogation, and later said that he had confessed to being involved with Lothery in the murder.

Alcox immediately disavowed the confession as false and would later testify at a preliminary hearing that at the time of the interrogation, he was mentally impaired and coerced by the interrogators. He said he had been arrested for being drunk in public on March 23, was kept in jail until 3 or 4 a.m. on March 24 and then the following day stayed up all night drinking alcohol and taking LSD. In his drugged and exhausted state, he said he came to believe he had a role in the crime and had blacked out, but once he recovered from those conditions, he realized that was all false.

According to the confession, Alcox said that he and Lothery had been drinking and needed money to buy more alcohol. Lothery had a handgun and said, “Let’s go get some money.” As Alcox and Lothery walked past the motel, they saw that the office was empty, so they entered and opened the cash drawer just as Thakorbhai walked in. In the confession, Alcox said he bolted out of the door and while he was in the parking lot, heard gunshots. He said, “I didn’t want to rob nobody. I don’t want to shoot nobody.” It was uncontested that all of the facts in the confession were provided to Alcox by Heidt.

Lothery was then arrested. The police told him that the person who had been with him at the motel had confessed and had named him as also being present. When the officers played the recording of the confession, Lothery expected to hear Sanjay Patel, who spoke with a thick accent, and was surprised to learn that it was Alcox who had made the statement.

Lothery and Alcox were charged with first-degree murder, robbery and burglary. Lothery was tried separately and convicted. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Alcox’s first trial ended in a mistrial because of improper comments by the prosecution. The second trial began in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on April 28, 1987. Heidt testified about the confession and denied that it was coerced in any way.

Carolina Gonzales testified that she met Alcox only once—two weeks after the murder when she was 13 years old—when she and some others were in an alley behind the Alcox family home. She testified that Alcox and Robert Garcia talked about the shooting and that Alcox said he and Lothery were “there” and that “they” had his fingerprints, but that “they will never catch them.”

Carol Seilhamer, a dispatcher-jailer who worked at the Lompoc City Jail, testified that shortly after Lothery was transferred to the jail, she overheard Alcox and Lothery speaking to each other through a ventilation shaft that connected their cells. Seilhamer said Lothery said, “Joel, we’re in a lot of trouble. You really (messed) us up by giving that statement to police.”

Seilhamer said Alcox replied, “They don’t have any fingerprints and they don’t have the gun. The only evidence they have against you is my statement, and I’m going to say it was a false statement.”

Alcox’s defense lawyer did not cross-examine Seilhamer and did not contest the validity of the confession.

The defense attorney presented a 911 call made by Sanjay Patel, whom Lothery knew and who was a friend (though not related) of the family of the motel owner. The call was made on April 11, 1987, a few days before Alcox went on trial. During that call, Patel said, “I’m ready to confess to murder. Lompoc Motel…I’m ready to admit to the murder.” Although the caller gave his name as Junia, police traced the call to the home of Sanjay Patel’s parents, where Heidt found him and brought him in for questioning.

Heidt told the jury that Sanjay smelled of alcohol and his speech was slightly slurred and that he denied the crime.

The defense also called Junia Fritz, Sanjay’s former girlfriend, who testified that at 6:45 p.m. (45 minutes after the shooting), Sanjay came to her apartment and gave her a handgun. She testified that Sanjay asked her to “hold it for him” and to clean off fingerprints. A day or two later, Sanjay retrieved the gun, she testified.

The defense lawyer did not investigate or interview any of Alcox’s alibi witnesses. He argued that if Sanjay was the gunman, then Alcox was not guilty of murder because he was “not a conspirator” with Sanjay. He argued that Alcox had abandoned the crime before he shooting occurred. Unfortunately for Alcox, that was a legally incorrect theory—the prosecution argued that under the felony murder statute, Alcox was accountable for the acts that occurred in the motel even after he fled.

On May 8, 1987, the jury convicted Alcox and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison plus one year.

Alcox appealed, and the California Court of Appeal upheld the convictions and sentence in October 1988 and the California Supreme Court declined to review it. In January 2002, Alcox, by then represented by attorney Juliana Drous, filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus claiming that Lothery had admitted that he and Sanjay Patel had committed the crime and that Alcox was not involved at all.

The petition also noted that Professor Richard Leo, a nationally recognized authority on police interrogation practices, coercive interrogation techniques, and false confessions, had analyzed Alcox’s confession. Leo concluded that the techniques used by Heidt and Ast during the interrogation were highly coercive and likely to have produced a false confession. Alcox’s confession was “highly questionable” and “almost certainly, if not certainly, false,” Leo concluded.

“Sergeant Heidt and Investigator Ast used improper techniques that communicated promises of more lenient treatment in exchange for Mr. Alcox’s compliance and confession and, conversely, threats of harsher treatment in the absence of Mr. Alcox’s compliance and confession,” Leo said. “These techniques are recognized both in law and psychology as inherently coercive.”

In April 2003, the Superior Court denied the petition without a hearing, but indicated it would reconsider the petition if Lothery provided a sworn affidavit.

Drous filed another petition in October 2003 which included a sworn statement from Lothery. In November 2004, Superior Court Judge Arthur Garcia held a hearing on the petition, during which the judge said he would not hear any evidence relating to failures by Alcox’s attorney to investigate the case prior to Alcox’s trial.

At the hearing, Lothery testified that he and Sanjay Patel were the only ones involved in the crime and that Sanjay was the gunman.

Other witnesses included Cathy Kelly Ginez, the paramedic who treated Thakorbhai Patel. Ginez testified for the first time that she heard Patel saying what sounded like “Sanjay.” At the time of the crime, she hadn’t been able to figure out exactly what Patel was saying, though when Patel was asked if he knew who shot him, he said he did, Ginez testified. Years later, she testified, she went to work for a physician named Sanjay and realized that was the name that Patel said that night.

Tracy Maniscalco, Ginez’s daughter, testified that she was 16 years old at the time and was with her mother at a restaurant across the street from the motel when her mother was summoned to the shooting. Maniscalco said she heard Patel saying “Sanjay” several times. She testified that she gave birth to a child not long after and lost touch with her family and was never contacted to be a witness at Alcox’s trial.

Robert Garcia testified that he was in the alley behind the Alcox home when Carolina Gonzales allegedly heard Alcox talk about the murder. Garcia testified that nothing was said about the murder at all and that Gonzales’s testimony was false. In addition, a statement from Gonzales was presented at the hearing in which Gonzales said that her testimony about Alcox at his trial was a figment of her imagination and that she was high on drugs while she was in the alley.

And Drous also presented tapes made at the Lompoc City Jail of conversations between Alcox and Lothery. During one conversation, Lothery told Alcox, “They brought someone in last night on our charges. Guess who it was?”

Alcox asked, “Who?”

“Sanjay,” Lothery said.

“Who is that?” Alcox asked.

“The real guy,” Lothery replied.

Ultimately, in June 2005, Judge Garcia granted the writ of habeas corpus and vacated Alcox’s convictions on the basis that Alcox’s attorney had failed to investigate an alibi defense as well as the circumstances of Gonzales’s statement (a reasonable investigation would have turned up Robert Garcia’s account which disputed her testimony) as well as her drug use. In addition, Judge Garcia found that Alcox’s attorney had assumed the confession was true and as a result actually withdrew the defense of innocence.

Drous began preparing for a retrial and requested the prosecution’s files. She discovered a report that had never been disclosed to the defense. That report said that when police went to question Sanjay Patel after he called 911 to confess to the murder, Patel’s father told police that he had asked Sanjay if he committed the murder and that Sanjay had denied it. When police asked Sanjay about his father’s statement, he told the officer: “If you tell your father you didn’t do it, your father is going to believe you.”

The defense had determined that Sanjay Patel was living in London. The prosecution contacted him and asked if he was involved in the shooting. His response was: “That was a long time ago. Things are different now.”

Drous and an investigator tracked down several witnesses who were with Alcox on the day of the crime and all agreed he was at a barbecue on Vandenberg Air Force base at the time of the shooting. Moreover, a fire department captain, who was one of the first to arrive at the motel after the shooting, said he heard the victim identify the gunman as Sanjay.

However, before a second trial could be held, the prosecution appealed Judge Garcia’s ruling and in March 2006, the California Court of Appeal reversed and reinstated Alcox’s convictions. The appeals court called Judge Garcia’s decision a “textbook example of a court impermissibly ‘second-guessing’ criminal defense counsel’s tactical decisions.” The court essentially held that if a defendant confesses and the attorney believes the confession, even where his client says it was false, the attorney has no duty to further investigate the defense.

After the California Supreme Court refused to review the decision, Drous filed two more state petitions for a writ of habeas corpus, both of which were dismissed.

Drous then filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and there followed seven years of litigation over procedural issues. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit eventually held that the “actual innocence” gateway entitled Alcox to a hearing on the merits of his petition.

In March 2012, Alcox was released on parole after serving 26 years in prison. In November 2015, U.S. Magistrate Andrew J. Wistrich issued a 62-page decision, recommending that the writ be granted and that Alcox’s convictions be vacated.

Wistrich noted the alibi witnesses corroborating Alcox’s initial statement that he was at a barbecue at the time of the crime, as well as all of the testimony that the victim had repeatedly said the gunman was named “Sanjay.” The judge also was critical of Alcox’s trial lawyer for failing to investigate the jail tape recordings, the contents of which indicated that the prosecution had cherry-picked portions to support their case and thus misrepresented evidence during closing argument.

“In addition, the full conversations would have prevented the prosecutor from arguing, as she did, that Lothery’s failure to confront (Alcox) with his false confession during the jailhouse conversation proved it was true,” Wistrich noted.

“In her closing argument, the prosecutor told the jury that if (Alcox’s) confession was false, Lothery would have said, ‘You absolute idiot. You crazy liar. What are you doing telling these people?’ Lothery’s failure to make such a statement, the prosecutor argued, proved the … confession was true. In fact, Lothery did say what the prosecutor argued he would have said…if (Alcox’s) confession was false,” Wistrich said.

Wistrich concluded that the confession was the product of pressure by Heidt and Ast and that they fed Alcox virtually all of the information in the confession.

“In the circumstances of this case, the cumulative effect of trial counsel’s failure to investigate and present exculpatory evidence is so prejudicial that reversal is warranted,” Wistrich declared. “(Alcox) had a viable defense. If that defense had been presented to the jury, there is a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome.”

In February 2016, U.S. District Judge James Selna adopted the magistrate’s recommendation and vacated Alcox’s convictions and ordered him retried or the charges dismissed. On May 11, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

In March 2017, Alcox filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from the city of Lompoc and Santa Barbara County. In September 2017, the state of California awarded him $1.3 million in compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/31/2016
Last Updated: 9/14/2017
State:California
County:Santa Barbara
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1986
Convicted:1987
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:26 years to life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:22
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No