On June 6, 1998, Los Angeles police officers were called to the Gold Apple Cocktail Lounge in Northridge, California after a caller reported a fight in the parking lot. The caller said a man with a green shirt and a ponytail was brandishing a knife.
Officers said they drove up with their lights off and when they drew near and turned on their headlights, they saw more than a dozen people. One of the officers said one man, who was wearing a green shirt, but had a shaved head, took a knife from his waistband and threw it under a nearby car. The knife was recovered and the officers arrested 30-year-old Daniel Larsen as the man who threw the knife.
Larsen was charged with possession of a concealed weapon. Following a preliminary hearing, the charge was dismissed by a judge who found that there was no evidence of concealment, a required element of the crime.
The prosecutor charged Larsen a second time with possession of a concealed knife, and the officer who had identified Larsen as the man who threw the knife changed his testimony at the second preliminary hearing. The officer testified that Larsen’s shirt was untucked and covered the knife, and that Larsen reached under his shirt, grabbed the knife and threw it under the car.
Larsen went on trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court in June 1999. The officers testified to seeing Larsen pull the knife out from under his shirt and throw it under a car.
Larsen was convicted by a jury on June 23, 1999. Because he had three prior felony convictions, Larsen was sentenced under California’s Three Strikes law to 28 years to life in prison.
In 2004, the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law began working on Larsen’s case. In 2005, after Larsen’s conviction had been upheld on appeal, he filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The petition alleged that he had received a constitutionally inadequate legal defense because his trial lawyer—who was later disbarred—failed to investigate the case prior to trial and failed to discover several witnesses who would have testified that Larsen did not have a knife. Further, the petition alleged that Larsen’s trial lawyer did not request that the knife be examined for fingerprints.
Attached to the petition were declarations from several witnesses who said that Larsen did not throw the knife. James McNutt, a retired Army sergeant and former police chief, said he was in the parking lot of the tavern and saw a man named William Hewitt arguing with McNutt’s step-son, Daniel Harrison. When police arrived, McNutt said he saw Hewitt take a knife from the waistband of his pants and throw it under a car.
Jorji Owen, Hewitt’s girlfriend, said that after the incident at the bar, Hewitt told her that he had thrown the knife. Owen said that Hewitt had sold his motorcycle to get money to post Larsen’s bond because he felt guilty that Larsen had been charged with a crime that Hewitt had committed. Hewitt himself also submitted an affidavit saying that the knife was his and that Larsen had not thrown it under the car.
The petition was denied and the denial was upheld by the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court.
Larsen filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus in 2008. The prosecution argued that the petition should be denied because it was filed beyond the one-year deadline for such petitions after state challenges to a conviction are final.
However, the federal court ordered a hearing on the petition to determine whether Larsen’s case qualified for an exception to the one-year requirement for a defendant who can establish actual innocence.
A hearing was held over two days in May and November 2009. McNutt, the former police chief, testified that Larsen neither possessed nor threw a knife that night. McNutt identified Hewitt as the person he saw throw a metal object under a car as police arrived. McNutt said that after the incident, he and his wife returned to their home in North Carolina and they did not know Larsen was convicted.
Following the hearing, the judge found that Larsen had established that he was actually innocent and that he qualified for the exception to the one-year deadline. Further, the judge determined that Larsen’s lawyer had failed to provide an adequate legal defense. The judge vacated Larsen’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The prosecution appealed the ruling. In March 2013, Larsen was released on bond while the case was on appeal.
In September 2013, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. On January 27, 2014, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charge.
– Maurice Possley