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Melvin Mikes

Other Los Angeles Murder Exonerations
On March 10, 1980, the body of 76-year-old Harold Hansen was found bludgeoned to death in his store in Long Beach, California. Harold’s Fix-It Shop had been ransacked, and Hansen’s pockets had been turned inside out. The police found three chrome posts near Hansen’s body that were part of a disassembled turnstile, and they determined that a three-foot section had been the murder weapon. It was dusted for fingerprints. Forty-six prints were found, and 16 were considered identifiable.

The investigation went cold for five years. Then, the California Department of Justice started a new computerized fingerprint databank, and the Long Beach police uploaded fingerprints obtained from the crime scenes of unsolved cases. Six of the 16 identifiable fingerprints on the turnstile piece came back as a match for Melvin Mikes, who was then 25, and had previous arrests for shoplifting, car theft and drug offenses.

Mikes, who was from Compton, California, was arrested in 1985 and charged with murder and robbery. His trial took place later that year. There were no witnesses, and the fingerprints were the state’s only evidence. Prosecutors said that Hansen had bought the turnstile several months earlier from a hardware store that was going out of business, and he had then placed the assembly in his basement in an area that was off-limits to customers. That meant, they argued, that Mikes could only have left his fingerprints on the turnstile piece during the break-in and murder. Mikes’s fingerprints were not found anywhere else in the store. Nor were they found on any of the stolen items recovered by police. Mikes’s attorney moved to dismiss the case for insufficient evidence, but the motion was denied. Mikes did not testify, but he had an alibi: A union official said Mikes was walking a picket line at a local hospital at the time that police said Hansen was beaten to death. She had the time cards to back up the claim, but she was never called to testify at trial because Mikes’s attorney was worried about her cross-examination.

Mikes was convicted by a jury in Long Beach Superior Court and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Mikes unsuccessfully appealed his conviction through the California courts, then filed for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. That, too was denied, and he appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

On October 7, 1991, the appellate court overturned his conviction and remanded the case back to the state courts. The ruling said that the fingerprint evidence on its own was insufficient to convict Mikes. The court noted that Mikes’s fingerprints could have been left on the turnstile prior to Hansen’s purchase of the equipment.

“In order to support a finding that Mikes is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the record must demonstrate that he in fact touched the posts at the time the crime was committed and not at some earlier point,” the court wrote. “There is insufficient evidence to warrant that conclusion rather than the conclusion that the fingerprints were impressed on the posts at an earlier time. There is, in short, a total failure of proof on the ‘accessibility’ question.”

The state appealed the appellate court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court declined to hear the case, and Mikes was released from prison on October 21, 1992.

Upon his release, Mikes made good on a promise: to walk his son, now 12, home from school. “I went through a lot because of this,” Mikes told the Los Angeles Times. “I lost a lot, and I never killed anyone.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1980
Convicted:1985
Exonerated:1992
Sentence:25 to Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No