Early on the morning of September 3, 1978, William Maxwell was shot to death at a Long Beach, California bathhouse, which was known to be a popular meeting place for homosexuals. Police arrived at the scene moments after the shooting, and questioned a witness who saw the back of the shooter, but no one was arrested.
Several months later, a man named Joe West contacted the police to tell them that his friend Oscar Lee Morris had murdered Maxwell. West said he had dropped Morris off at the bathhouse that day and given him the murder weapon; he claimed Morris said he “had to kill” a homosexual. West had known Morris since childhood, and the two men had a falling out shortly before West went to the police. Police began investigating Morris, but in 1979 the detectives were pulled from the case, and it was mistakenly filed as a closed case. Investigation came to a halt until 1982, when Joe West was arrested for auto theft and joyriding. He again told police that Morris had killed Maxwell. Morris, who was in prison for two other killings, was charged with Maxwell’s murder shortly afterwards.
West was the key witness for the prosecution at Morris’s trial. He testified that he received nothing from the state in return for his testimony, though it was later revealed that in fact West’s sentence for an auto theft charge had been reduced and his sentence for a parole violation had been terminated. Morris was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in March 1983.
In 1988, the Supreme Court of California reduced Morris’s death sentence to life without parole, finding that there was no evidence that the murder had been committed during a robbery, a necessary condition for his capital sentence.
In 1997, on his death-bed, West recanted his testimony against Morris. Based on this new evidence, the Supreme Court of California ordered an evidentiary hearing in 1998, and the Los Angeles County Superior Court granted Morris a new trial. Prosecutors declined to retry the case, and Morris was freed in 2000. Morris filed a lawsuit against the city in 2002, but received no relief.
- Alexandra Gross