On June 4, 1999, police raided an apartment on Cetus Road in San Diego, California, and arrested 43-year-old Michael Cox and his 44-year-old girlfriend, Julie Richardson
, after they discovered methamphetamine, baggies, two scales and other materials used to sell the drug in one of the bedrooms of the apartment.
Cox and Richardson went on trial in San Diego County Superior Court in August 1999. Dwight Streeter, a state parole agent who participated in the search, testified that he was tipped off by an informant that there were drugs in the apartment. Linda Slack, who was the only person at the apartment at the time the police arrived, said the police asked for Cox and she directed them to the bedroom that Cox and Richardson had just moved into a few days earlier.
Cox and Richardson arrived while the search was still going on. According to Streeter, Cox said he had just moved into the bedroom a few days earlier. Both Cox and Richardson denied the drugs were theirs, although police claimed that after Cox was arrested, he asked if they would let Richardson go if he admitted that the drugs and the drug packaging equipment were his.
Slack admitted that she had used methamphetamine for nearly 20 years. She said she had used it with Cox and Richardson, and that Cox supplied the drugs.
Richardson testified that on the morning of the raid, she and Cox returned to their former residence to get more of their belongings. Richardson also testified that the clothing in the bedroom belonged to a previous tenant named Sandy Russell, who had been asked to vacate the bedroom so Cox and Richardson could move in.
During initial Streeter’s testimony, he said he got a tip from a confidential informant that there were drugs in the bedroom where Cox and Richardson were staying. Later in the trial, after the defense rested, Streeter was called as a rebuttal witness by the prosecution and the defense demanded that the informant be identified.
The trial judge questioned Streeter outside the presence of the defense lawyers and the jury. Streeter told the judge that the informant was Sandy Russell, a parolee of his, who had called him to say that she was “strung out” and had been evicted from her apartment. When Streeter picked her up, Russell said that there were drugs in the apartment bedroom where she had stayed and which Cox and Richardson were moving into. Streeter told the judge that Russell “said they were all using and selling, including herself.”
The judge refused to order the prosecution to provide the identity of the informant to the defense.
In August 1999, the jury convicted Cox and Richardson of possession of methamphetamine. Cox was sentenced to six years in prison and Richardson was sentenced to one year in jail.
While the case was on appeal, the trial judge granted a request by Cox’s lawyer, Laura Schaefer, to view a redacted version of the judge’s questioning of Streeter. Schaefer argued on appeal that the statement by Russell, the informant, that she had been using drugs in the apartment as recently as a day prior to the raid, was evidence favorable to the defense since it showed that Russell could have been the owner of the drugs for which Cox and Richardson were convicted. Schaefer argued that Russell’s identity and her use of drugs in the apartment just a day before the arrests should have been disclosed by the prosecution prior to trial.
In November 2000, the California Court of Appeal agreed, reversed the convictions of Cox and Richardson and ordered a new trial. The statement that Russell was using drugs “was the essence of potentially exonerating evidence—namely, that the methamphetamine and paraphernalia found in their bedroom did not belong to Cox and Richardson, but rather to the informant” who just vacated the room in which these items were found, the court said.
On February 13, 2001, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case. Richardson was already free after serving her sentence. Cox was then released.
Cox later sought compensation from the state of California, but his claim was denied.
– Maurice Possley