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Willie Earl Green

Other Los Angeles Murder Exonerations
On the night of August 9, 1983, 25-year-old Denise Walker was shot to death during a robbery at a drug house in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

Willie Finley, a convicted murderer and crack cocaine dealer, told police that he was returning to the house from the store when a gunman approached, pistol-whipped him, and then dragged him into the house through the front door. At the time, Walker, Greg White, Patricia Austin, and Austin’s child, were also in the house.

Finley said the gunman yelled at Walker to open the back door, and a second gunman entered the house, carrying a sawed-off shotgun. This gunman dragged Walker by her hair into the kitchen. He told everyone to lie on the floor. Finley said he recalled Walker saying something that sounded like “Willie” when the second gunman entered the house.

The second gunman then beat Finley with the shotgun and stole a shoebox full of money from a bedroom. After retrieving the shoebox, this gunman returned to the kitchen, swapped guns with the first gunman, and left the house, leaving the first gunman in the kitchen with the shotgun. Finley said that he heard the first gunman say “You’re the only one who knows me” to Walker before shooting her twice and leaving the house. Walker died on the kitchen floor.

Detective John Bunch of the Los Angeles Police Department interviewed Finley and the other witnesses and Walker’s family. Walker’s mother, Betty Walker, said that Denise had briefly lived with 31-year-old Willie Earl Green a year earlier, and that Green and his cousin had been charged with grand theft and convicted for stealing her television.

On September 21, 1983, Finley met with Bunch and looked at a photo array that included Green. Finley selected Green’s photo out of the selection as the gunman who came in through the back door, and a week later, the police held a live lineup that included Green. Finley selected him yet again.

On September 27, 1983, Green was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, burglary, and robbery. Green told police that he was about 20 miles away in the San Fernando Valley at the time of the murder, but nobody was able to confirm his alibi. The shotgun used to kill Walker was never found, and there was no physical or forensic evidence tying Green to the crime scene.

Green went to trial in 1984 in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Finley was the state’s main witness and identified Green as the second gunman, claiming: “when I saw him in the picture, there was no doubt in my mind that he was the second man who came in the back door.” He denied that he received any help from Detective Bunch in selecting Green’s photo and said that he was not under the influence of drugs at the time of Walker’s murder. He also testified that being pistol-whipped at the start of the robbery had no effect on his ability to witness the robbery and shooting.

Bunch testified that Finley said that he was “pretty sure” that Green was the second gunman, stating that Finley was 80 percent sure of his choice. Bunch also said that Finley identified two other people as the gunman who shot Walker. These identifications didn’t lead to any arrests because Austin could not identify the men selected by Finley. (One of the men was actually a filler and did not represent a viable suspect.)

Austin also testified. She could not make an identification, but said Walker called out “Oh no, Willie” during the robbery.

Green did not testify. His attorney presented expert testimony about the challenges eyewitnesses have making identifications during stressful situations. Separately, a witness named Leslie Goode testified that Finley had told him that he “wouldn’t identify Willie Green or anybody.”

During the trial, the state and Green’s attorney stipulated to the nature of Walker and Green’s relationship. It said in part: “In 1982, for a period of three months, Mr. Green lived with Denise Walker and a person known as Robert Jackson at the apartment of Denise Walker and that on or about May 1, 1982, a dispute arose between them and defendant and Mr. Jackson was forced to leave the apartment by Ms. Walker.”

The jury found Green guilty of first-degree murder, burglary, and robbery in 1984. He was sentenced to 33 years to life in prison.

In 2004, Finley recanted and told Green’s attorneys from Centurion Ministries that he lied during his testimony and had been high on crack the night of Walker’s murder. Finley said he had hemophilia, which caused his face to swell up to such a degree after being hit with the pistol and the shotgun that he was unable to clearly view the gunman. He also said that Bunch had aided him in identifying Green during the initial photo viewing, suggesting that Finley pick Green and telling Finley about Green’s previous relationship with Walker.

The recantation formed the basis of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by Green’s attorneys in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

During an evidentiary hearing on November 2, 2007, Finley testified that Bunch played a critical role during the identification process. “I picked the picture out because of [Bunch] explaining to me what Willie Green had did. And I’m a drug user, and at the time without any help, I really doubt I would have picked it out.” He also testified about his hemophilia and his drug use at the time of the shooting.

Austin testified at the hearing that Bunch “said Willie was Denise’s boyfriend and that Willie had broken into her mother’s house and that when he went to jail, he told her when he got out he was going to get her.”

Bunch testified at the hearing and denied improperly leading Finley or Austin.

On March 10, 2008, Judge Stephen A. Marcus granted Green’s habeas petition and overturned his conviction. He said that although it was unlikely and improbable that Bunch had suggested that Finley select Green’s photo, there was substantial evidence that Finley had been told before he viewed the photo array about the relationship between Green and Walker.

Judge Marcus also agreed that information about Finley’s drug use and hemophilia would have been critical factors for a jury to know when evaluating the credibility of the only witness to the shooting who identified Green. Judge Marcus noted that Finley never provided the police with a description of the gunman said to be Green before the lineup.

Judge Marcus also said in his ruling that the trial stipulation played a key role in the conviction, causing jurors to speculate about the nature of the relationship between Green and Walker. Although the relationship was platonic, at least one juror would later say that she thought they were dating.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges against Green on March 20, 2008, and he was released from prison after serving nearly 25 years.

After his release, Green said that he didn’t hold any grudges against Willie Finley, or anyone else for that matter. He said: “I don’t hate anybody. I don’t hate Willie Finley for doing what he did. I forgive him, too.” He said that obtaining an associate of arts degree and helping run a life skills program about parenting and anger management while in prison had humbled him, and he called attention to the murder of Denise Walker. “Everybody’s talking about me, but nobody’s talking about the victim. She didn’t get any justice. Me being locked up for 25 years didn’t give her any justice.”

Green later filed a suit against the Los Angeles Police Department, claiming that Bunch violated his civil rights during his investigation. The case went to trial, and the jury ruled in favor of the police department, agreeing that Bunch did not violate Green’s civil rights during the investigation and that the detective was not to blame for Green’s conviction.

– Garet Baldy

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 7/20/2023
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1983
Sentence:33 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:31
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No