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Bobby Joe Maxwell

Other Los Angeles Exonerations with Official Misconduct
In April 1979, police charged 29-year-old Bobby Joe Maxwell with stabbing 11 men to death in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles, California. Maxwell, who frequented that area, was promptly labeled the “Skid Row Stabber.”

The murders began in the fall of 1978. On October 23, 1978, 50-year-old Jessie Martinez was slain. Five days later, on October 28, 32-year-old Jose Cortez was killed. Forty-six-year-old Bruce Emmett Drake was killed on October 30. On November 4, 65-year-old J.P. Henderson was stabbed to death.

David Martin Jones was fatally stabbed on November 9 outside the Los Angeles downtown public library. Two days later, on November 11, 57-year-old Francisco Perez Rodriguez was killed.

The seventh and eighth victims were 36-year-old Frank Floyd Reed and 49-year-old Augustine Luna, who were both stabbed to death a day later, on November 12.

On November 17, 35-year-old Melford Fletcher, also known as Jimmy White Buffalo, was murdered. And on November 23, 45-year-old Frank Garcia was found murdered on a bench outside Los Angeles City Hall. Police said that Maxwell’s palm print was found on the bench.

On December 14, 1979, about three weeks after Garcia was killed, police saw Maxwell standing over an intoxicated man who was sleeping on the sidewalk. Officers searched Maxwell and found a double-edged stainless steel knife. He pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of carrying a concealed weapon and was sentenced to 60 days in jail. The knife, which police kept, would later be said to consistent with the wounds on eight of the victims.

Maxwell was released on January 18, 1979. The last victim, 26-year-old Luis Alvarez, was stabbed to death three days later, on January 21, 1979. Three months later, on April 4, Maxwell was arrested.

By the time Maxwell went to trial in January 1984, the charge of murdering Jessie Martinez—the first victim in the string of murders—had been dismissed due to insufficient evidence. He went to trial accused of 10 murders and five robberies of the victims. The prosecution’s theory was that Maxwell was a devil worshipper who was killing derelicts to provide their souls to Satan.

The trial before a jury in Los Angeles County Superior Court lasted from January to July. There was no physical evidence directly linking Maxwell to the crimes.

Police could not say when Maxwell’s palm print was left on the bench where Garcia was killed. While he lived with a family member, Maxwell was unemployed and known to frequent Skid Row. He told police he had sat on that bench before.

At the time of his arrest, police had confiscated a Bic lighter, his sweatshirt, tennis shoes, and a logbook from his sister’s home.

An entry in the logbook, which a handwriting expert said was in Maxwell’s handwriting, said, “Satan, praise be unto you.”

Three friends of David Martin Jones testified that shortly before Martin Jones was stabbed, a black man who had a Spanish or Caribbean accent approached them and said his name was “Luther.” The jury heard the preliminary hearing testimony of one of the three, Thomas Jones, because he had died by the time the trial began. In that testimony, Jones said that the man had an unusual gait and that after speaking to them, he walked to where David Martin Jones was lying. A few minutes later, Martin Jones shouted that he had been stabbed. When asked who stabbed him, Martin Jones said, “The guy that just left.”

In his preliminary hearing testimony, Jones said that after hearing Maxwell speak in court, he recognized his voice as that of the killer.

Police testified that in January 1979, graffiti was found on a bathroom wall at the Greyhound bus station, which said, “My name is Luther, I kill winos to put them out of their misery.”

Jurors were told that Maxwell was put into a lineup and ordered to say, “My name is Luther.” However, none of the three men who testified about Martin Jones’s murder identified Maxwell. One of the men said, “You’ve got everybody up there that doesn’t look like him.”

One of the other witnesses testified that after seeing Maxwell at the preliminary hearing, he wrote the prosecutor a letter saying, “I sure hope you have the right guy, because if you do, he sure did change a lot in the last six months.”

A prosecution expert testified that muddy shoe prints found near Garcia’s body were consistent with a pair of Maxwell’s shoes and with measurements made of his stride.

A defense expert testified that the shoe prints were too indistinct to prove anything, and that it was impossible to make a gait comparison without knowing the speed of the person who left the shoe prints.

Garcia’s wife testified that the Bic lighter confiscated from Maxwell looked like the one that Garcia had at the time of his murder. Garcia’s son was unable to identify the lighter in a lineup of similar lighters, and two detectives said there was nothing unusual about the lighter to distinguish it from any other Bic lighter.

Blood samples and cigarette butts recovered from the scene of Martin Jones’s murder were not linked to Maxwell.

The prosecution’s case relied heavily upon the testimony of Sidney Storch, a convict with an extensive record of fraud, forgery, and drug use. Storch testified that he spent about three weeks in the same cell with Maxwell. One day, he testified, Maxwell was reading a newspaper article about his case that mentioned the palm print, and said that he made a “mistake” by not wearing gloves.

Storch said he had agreed to plead guilty to numerous charges pending against him in return for three years in prison. He said he had never before testified or cooperated as a prosecution witness.

The defense presented jail records showing that Maxwell and Storch shared the same cell for only four nights—not three weeks. The prosecution responded with other evidence suggesting that the jail records were unreliable and frequently wrong.

On July 12, 1984, after three days of deliberation, the jury convicted Maxwell of the murder and robbery of David Martin Jones and the murder of Frank Garcia.

The jury acquitted him of the murders of J.P. Henderson, Francisco Rodriguez, and Melford Fletcher, and was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the murders of Jose Cortez, Bruce Emmett Drake, Frank Floyd Reed, Augustine Luna, and Luis Alvarez. The judge declared a mistrial on those charges.

The prosecution asked the jury to sentence Maxwell to death, but the jury instead voted to sentence him to life in prison without parole. The prosecution chose not to retry him on the cases that ended in a mistrial.

In the late 1980s, a scandal erupted in Los Angeles County over the use of jailhouse snitches who fabricated testimony in murder cases to receive reduced sentences and other benefits.

One of the most prolific of these snitches was Storch, who was unmasked as serial liar. Storch had testified in numerous trials that defendants had confessed their crimes to him. He later admitted that he read newspaper accounts of the crimes and falsely claimed that the defendants had confessed to him. He demonstrated for the media how he could pick up the telephone and convince police that an inmate had confessed to him.

Maxwell appealed his convictions. In March 1991, the Second District California Court of Appeal upheld his conviction and sentence. In October 1991, he filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition was denied in 1993. In October 1995, Maxwell filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the California Supreme Court, which ruled in 1996 that Maxwell should get a hearing on the issue of whether he was entitled to a new trial based on Starch’s testimony.

A series of hearings lasted more than two years—from August 1997 to November 1999. In February 2000, the trial court judge ruled that while Storch may have been a sophisticated jailhouse informant and accomplished liar—despite his claim of being a novice snitch at Maxwell’s trial—Storch had not actually lied at Maxwell’s trial.

In April 2001, Maxwell filed another habeas petition in the California Supreme Court, but it was denied in December of that year.

In December 2002, attorney Verna Wefald filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus on Maxwell’s behalf. The petition claimed that the prosecution had failed to disclose that Storch, after getting a three-year prison term through his public defender’s negotiations, cut another secret deal directly with the prosecution reducing his time to just 16 months. The petition claimed that not only did Storch falsely deny he had such a deal, but that the prosecution knowingly allowed him to lie about it. The petition cited numerous lies that Storch had told at the trial to conceal his past snitch work and portray himself as a novice.

Four years later, in 2006, the writ was denied. U.S. District Judge James Selna ruled that while Storch may have lied about his deal and the prosecution failed to disclose it, Maxwell had still received a constitutionally fair trial.

In 2010, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed Judge Selna and granted the writ. The court ordered a new trial and concluded that Storch had testified falsely when he said that Maxwell had confessed.

The court noted that Storch had testified in a least a half a dozen trials, and had admitted that he taught other snitches how to “book” fellow inmates in exchange for reduced sentences and other benefits.

“First, it is undisputed that Storch told numerous lies at Maxwell’s trial,” the court said. “At a minimum, Storch lied about his motivation for coming forward, his prior record, the amount of money he had stolen, the level of education he attained and the fact that he had previously worked out a 36-month prison term in exchange for his guilty plea before the sixteen-month deal he ultimately received in exchange for his cooperation and testimony at Maxwell’s trial.”

The court further noted, “Here, Storch lied about Maxwell’s confession in order to reduce his own jail time. Storch went on to testify for the prosecution, and to lie, in numerous other cases. He became one of Los Angeles County’s most infamous jailhouse informants and he operated at the height of the County’s jailhouse informant scandal.”

The appeals court also ruled that the prosecution had failed to disclose the evidence of Storch’s private deal as well as his background of snitch work and then allowed Storch to testify falsely about those facts without correcting his perjury. The information, if disclosed to Maxwell’s attorneys, would have created “substantial doubt as to Storch’s credibility, particularly with respect to his professed naiveté,” the court ruled.

The prosecution sought to appeal, but in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Maxwell remained in prison to await a retrial. In 2013, prosecutors got new indictments against Maxwell accusing him of three of the murders that had resulted in a mistrial in 1984 when the jury was unable to reach a verdict. The prosecution said it would seek to retry Maxwell for the Frank Garcia and David Martin Jones murders that were reversed by the appeals court, and also would try him for the murders of Jose Cortez, Bruce Emmett Drake, and Frank Floyd Reed.

That trial never occurred. In December 2017, Maxwell suffered a massive heart attack that left him comatose. By July 2018, medical experts said he had less than six months to live.

On August 10, 2018, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

In December 2018, Maxwell filed a lawsuit seeking compensation from the city and county of Los Angeles. Maxwell died in April 2019. The lawsuit then was dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/16/2018
Last Updated: 5/17/2019
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1978
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No