On September 19, 1999, police in Vallejo, California were summoned by a woman who said she believed her cousin, 24-year-old Joe Lea, had sexually molested her two-year-old son. She said the boy had told her that two days earlier Lea had sodomized him and tried to force him to engage in oral sex.
The boy was taken to a hospital where a sexual assault examiner said she found bruising in the boy’s mouth and some lacerations near his rectum. The boy told police that Lea had put his “ninny” in the boy’s “booty.”
A neighbor reported to police that on the evening of September 17, she heard screaming that she recognized as the boy’s coming from a smokehouse in the backyard of the home where the boy was staying with his great-grandmother.
The neighbor said that Lea had come to her home that night to sell her stolen merchandise, and that he then went next door to the home where the boy and other relatives were staying.
Lea, who had a previous conviction for assault with a deadly weapon, was arrested in the early morning hours of September 20, 1999. He was charged with one count of oral copulation with a child under the age of 14, two counts of sodomy with a child and three counts of committing lewd acts upon a child.
Lea went on trial in Solano County Superior Court in March 2000. The boy, who was by then three years old, identified body parts on a drawing and said that Lea had sexually assaulted him in the house and outside the house. The boy’s mother and the police officer testified to the boy’s outcry. The mother also testified that she noticed the boy was acting nervous and when she questioned him, he said that he had been assaulted. The mother did not notify police until the next day, however, because she had been drinking and did not want to go to police in that state.
The boy’s older brother, who was by then 16, testified that Lea had sexually assaulted him when he was five years old and Lea was 14 or 15 years old. The older brother testified that he told Lea’s mother, but was accused of lying. The older brother said he told his mother, but she did not report it to police until several months later. His mother testified that she stopped pursing the allegations because family members pressured her to drop the matter.
Several witnesses testified that although Lea had been in the home at the same time as the two-year-old boy, his visits were brief and no sexual assaults had occurred. Lea testified, denying that he had assaulted the two-year-old or his older brother.
A jury convicted Lea on March 10, 2000, of one count of oral copulation, one count of sodomy and two counts of committing a lewd act. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
In 2003, after his state appeals had been rejected, Lea filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition was denied in U.S. District Court, but in 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overruled that decision and ordered a new trial due to an error in jury instructions that failed to caution the jury about how to treat the testimony of the two-year-old boy’s older brother—an uncharged allegation of sexual assault.
In 2006, Lea pled no contest to two of the counts in exchange for a 16-year prison term rather than face a potential life sentence if he went to trial.
Later that year, Lea reached out to a new attorney, Alex Reisman, whose private investigator interviewed the two-year-old boy’s mother. During the interview, the woman said that she had repeatedly coached the boy on what to say at the trial. At the trial, however, the mother had denied coaching the boy.
Reisman filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in 2007. At a hearing on the petition, the mother denied telling the boy what to say, but she admitted that during the time between Lea’s arrest and the trial, she spent hours trying to get the boy to understand the difference between a lie and the truth.
In October 2008, Solano County Superior Court Judge Harry Kinnicutt granted the petition and vacated Lea’s conviction based on the false testimony of the mother at Lea’s trial.
The case was assigned to Judge William Harrison, who in April 2009 granted a defense motion to bar the victim’s testimony because the boy—by then 12 years old—had no memory of whether the sexual assaults occurred.
After reviewing the trial transcripts, Harrison ruled that the boy had been unable to identify Lea in the courtroom at the trial and had been unable to effectively communicate to the jury. The judge barred the use of the boy’s trial testimony as unreliable. The judge also ruled that the boy’s alleged statements to his mother and to the police were inadmissible.
On May 4, 2009, Harrison dismissed the charges after the prosecution said it was unable to proceed and Lea was released from prison. Lea sought compensation from the State of California, but his claim was denied.
– Maurice Possley