Shortly after noon on April 6, 1979, 78-year-old Jack Sasson was robbed and shot five times in the carport of his home in West Los Angeles, California.
Three weeks later, Sasson died of his wounds. By that time, 18-year-old Kash Register had been charged with the shooting after two witnesses, Brenda Anderson and Elliott Singleton, picked Register’s photograph out of a photographic lineup.
Register went on trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court in October 1979. Anderson testified she heard gunshots, looked out the window of her residence and saw a man run from the carport. The man then returned to the carport and she heard more gunfire. She said she was with her sister, Sharon, at the time. Anderson further testified that she identified Register in the photographic lineup because she recognized him from when they went to high school together.
Singleton testified that he saw the shooting and chased after the gunman for 10 minutes, even though he knew the gunman was armed and he did not have a weapon, before the gunman escaped.
After Register was identified, police searched his home and confiscated clothes that fit the description of those the gunman wore. The prosecution presented crime lab testimony that a single microscopic drop of blood was found on the pants that were seized. The drop was so small that it was destroyed in the testing. An analyst said the blood was Type O—the same type as both the victim and Register.
Fingerprints lifted from the car in Sasson’s carport did not match Register.
Register testified and denied involvement in the crime. Five alibi witnesses testified. One of them, Dorothy MacEntire, worked for the California Employment Development Department. MacEntire testified that she was helping Register find a job on the day of the crime. He left her office in Culver City, south of Los Angeles, at 11 a.m. and telephoned her at 2 p.m. as she had requested. Although the shooting happened about an hour earlier, MacEntire said he sounded normal on the phone. She said Register came to a job interview the following day, April 7, 1979, and was hired. He worked all day on April 9 and was arrested on April 10. MacEntire and other alibi witnesses said that on the day of the shooting Register was not wearing clothing consistent with the shooter’s, as described by Brenda Anderson and Singleton—a burgundy shirt and black pants.
On October 31, 1979, after three days of deliberation, a jury convicted Register of first-degree murder, attempted robbery and illegal use of a firearm. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. His conviction was upheld in 1981. In 1984, due to a change in California sentencing laws, Register was re-sentenced to 27 years to life.
In 2011, another of Brenda Anderson’s sisters, Sheila Vanderkam, discovered a website that locates convicted felons. She typed in Register’s name “out of curiosity” and learned “to my horror that Mr. Register was still in prison.”
Vanderkam tracked down Keith Chandler, a justice system consultant who was working with attorney Steve Sanders in Sacramento. Sanders had been appointed by a federal court judge to represent Register in a federal challenge to a parole denial. Chandler had been in prison with Register and although he did not have formal legal training, he had become a “jailhouse lawyer” while in prison.
Chandler helped Register prepare a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus that included Vanderkam’s statement as well as a statement from the other sister, Sharon Anderson, that she had told police that Register was not the gunman. Vanderkam said that she knew Brenda Anderson’s identification was a lie and that she and Sharon had told police as much in 1979 prior to Register’s trial.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Katherine Mader received the petition and, after reading it, appointed attorney Herbert Barish to represent Register in October 2012. Within a few weeks, Barish came to the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles. From January to October 2013, lawyers and law students from the Project for the Innocent investigated the case and discovered that the prosecution had failed to disclose that Brenda Anderson had a criminal record, including an arrest for forgery six days before the murder and convictions for petty theft and burglary prior to Register’s trial. The prosecution filed a response opposing Register’s petition in June 2013 and the Project for the Innocent and Barish filed a response in June 2013, prompting Judge Mader to order a hearing in October 2013.
At the hearing, witnesses included Brenda Anderson, Vanderkam, Sharon Anderson and Singleton.
Vanderkam said that at the time of the shooting, she and her sisters were hiding a package of Avon products they stole from the porch of a neighbor. They heard the gunfire, but did not see the gunman.
Vanderkam said she worked at the same police station as the detectives who were handling the Sasson murder investigation. She said that when she told a detective Brenda had lied, “The detective placed his finger over his mouth (like a shush sound) and just stared at me. He made it very clear to me, without actually saying anything, that I was to stay out of it.”
Sharon Anderson testified that she looked at the same photographic lineup as Brenda. She said a detective pointed to the photograph of Register and said, “Your sister, Brenda Anderson, said it’s him—this one, right there.” She said she told the detective that Register was not the gunman. She said that police attempted to coerce her to identify Register by threatening to arrest her for the stolen Avon products, but she still refused to identify him and, as a result, did not testify at trial.
On November 7, 2013, Judge Mader vacated Register’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The judge found that Brenda Anderson was an unreliable and unbelievable witness, noting that at the hearing, Brenda Anderson said that she wasn’t sure the gunman was Register, that the gunman looked like someone she went to school with, that she wasn’t sure who the gunman was, that she never “definitely” said the gunman was Register and that the police convinced her the gunman was Register.
“She was the least believable witness…and her testimony was erratic,” Judge Mader said. “She simply was not credible.”
Singleton claimed he no longer remembered anything about the case—neither that he testified nor that he witnessed a shooting.
The judge found that the prosecution “repeatedly concealed relevant evidence” that would have resulted in an acquittal instead of a conviction. The evidence included Vanderkam’s statement about her sister and Sharon Anderson’s statement that the gunman was not Register. The prosecution also concealed the identity of another eyewitness, Singleton’s wife, because she said she didn’t want to get involved.
Register was released on November 8, 2013. On December 13, 2013, the prosecution dismissed the charges. In January 2016, the city of Los Angeles agreed to pay Register $16.7 million to settle a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit.
– Maurice Possley