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Samuel Bonner

Other Los Angeles County, California exonerations
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On November 11, 1982, 23-year-old Leonard Polk, a flight attendant living in Long Beach, California, was found shot to death in his apartment.

Less than three weeks later, police arrested 20-year-old Samuel Bonner and 23-year-old Watson Allison. Both were charged with first-degree murder and armed robbery.

Ultimately, both men were tried separately and convicted of murder, and in each case the prosecution claimed that the defendant was the gunman. The jury in Bonner's case rejected that notion and he was sentenced to life in prison, while the jury in Allison's case convicted him of being the gunman and he was sentenced to death.

Nearly 20 years later, a federal judge rejected the evidence that Allison was the gunman, and said the prosecutor, Kurt Seifert, had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct.Allison was resentenced to life in prison.

Then, in 2019, a California Superior Court judge found that Seifert had engaged in misconduct in Bonner case, dismissed Bonner's case entirely and set him free.

In October 1983, Bonner went to trial first in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Seifert argued that Bonner and Allison went into Polk’s apartment, beat him and that Bonner shot him in the head. Seifert contended the two then stole a television, stereo equipment, record albums, and a duffle bag.

That Bonner was in the apartment at all didn't seem to fit with the testimony of Long Beach police officer Edward Davenport, who testified that he began following Bonner’s 1964 grey Ford because he believed Bonner and his passenger, Allison, looked suspicious. Davenport said he saw the car stop near 10th Street and Orizaba Avenue and Polk, who lived a half a block away on Orizaba, spoke to Allison through the passenger window.

Davenport said Allison got out of the car and Bonner drove away. He said he saw Allison and Polk enter Polk’s apartment. Meanwhile, two neighbors, Ray Johnson and Frank Aguayo, returned to the apartment building. Johnson testified that after he went into his apartment, he looked out the front window and saw Allison come out of Polk’s apartment with a television, which he put into Polk’s car. Johnson said he saw Allison make at least three more trips, carrying Polk’s stereo speakers and a duffle bag.

Officer Davenport said he saw Allison carrying a large, full duffle bag. Davenport, as well as Johnson and Aguayo, testified they saw Allison drive off in Polk’s car.

Subsequently Johnson and Aguayo went to Polk’s apartment and discovered his body. Police were called and a search began for Bonner’s car, although he had been seen driving away at least 30 minutes before the crime occurred.

That evening, Bonner’s car was found parked near Allison’s home. Bonner was searched, as was his car and residence. Nothing was found that linked him to the crime. However, an envelope addressed to Allison was found on the passenger side floorboard of Bonner’s car. The notation “10th and Orizaba” was written on the envelope.

Based on the envelope, police located Allison. They searched a garage that Allison was renting and found all of the items stolen from Polk’s apartment except for the television and the duffle bag. Bonner and Allison were then arrested.

Police testified that they found Allison’s fingerprints in Polk’s apartment, but no prints linked to Bonner. Police testified that Bonner’s palmprint was found on an amplifier in Allison’s residence that came from Polk’s apartment. However, the defense noted that 11 days elapsed between the crime and the discovery of the amplifier. Bonner had been to Allison’s home in the meantime, so he could have left the print then.

Angela Hunter, Polk’s cousin and roommate, identified the stolen items that had been recovered. She testified that a crate containing more than 100 of her record albums had been moved from against a wall to the middle of the living room.

A Long Beach police investigator testified that the crate was so heavy that it required at least two people to move it.

Seifert, the prosecutor, also called Michael Hayes, who testified that he was in jail at the same time as Bonner and that Bonner had admitted shooting Polk. Hayes testified that he had been convicted of two felonies in the past in his home state of Kentucky and that he had testified in one other murder case.

Seifert also presented a fuse found in front of Polk’s apartment was similar to one that was in Bonner’s pocket when he was first questioned by police. Seifert contended that because witnesses saw only Allison take out the television, speakers and duffle bag, Bonner must have surreptitiously entered and left the apartment with the stolen amplifier, tuner, and turntable.

On November 4, 1983, the jury convicted Bonner of first-degree murder and robbery. However, the jury did not accept the prosecutor’s argument that Bonner was the actual gunman. As a result, Seifert withdrew his demand that Bonner be sentenced to death. Instead, Bonner was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 1984, Allison went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court. However, in this trial, Seifert argued that Allison was the gunman. In this trial, Hunter, Polk’s cousin, clarified that her albums were stored outside the crate. They apparently were placed in the crate “during” the robbery, and the crate was not moved while it was full of albums.

Long Beach police officer William Collette testified for the first time that a shoeprint found next to the fuse in front of Polk’s apartment was “pretty close” to the pattern of shoes worn by Allison and that Bonner’s shoes had been excluded as the source of the print.

The jailhouse informant was not called to testify.

During closing argument, Seifert told the jury, “The evidence points to Allison [as] the one going in, and all the evidence that’s reasonable and believable that you will look at shows Bonner drove the Ford all the time and was not the inside man.”

Seifert also argued, “And the neighbors saw the defendant [Allison] going in and out, taking the stolen property. Didn’t see the other guy at all, except driving the Ford automobile, which the evidence showed he [Bonner] owned…The…only evidence of anyone present in the apartment was the fingerprint of Mr. Allison.”

Seifert told the jury that the positioning of Bonner’s palmprint on the amplifier precluded it from having been placed while the amplifier was inside Polk’s apartment. He argued that Bonner did not touch the amplifier until days later.

The jury convicted Allison of first-degree murder and robbery and found that he was the gunman. Allison was sentenced to death.

When Bonner was arrested, his clothes were confiscated and a crime lab analyst would later report that human blood was found on Bonner's shirt. A stain on Bonner's pants was blood, the analyst reported, but whether it was human blood could not be determined. Attempts to determine a blood type were inconclusive.

That evidence was not presented at Bonner's trial. Prior to Allison's trial, a detective retrieved the clothing from the evidence room and said it was for Allison's trial. However, it was not introduced at Allison's trial, either, and there was no record of it ever being returned to the evidence room.

Bonner’s convictions were upheld on appeal, but his sentence was modified to 25 years to life. From 1989 to 1997, Bonner filed seven state law petitions for a writ of habeas corpus. His first petition claimed that Hayes’s testimony was perjured. The prosecution responded that there was “not a shred of evidence” that Hayes had lied. All of Bonner’s petitions were denied.

Meanwhile, an attorney for Allison had pursued a state habeas petition on behalf of Anthony Stacy. Stacy had been convicted of a double murder after Hayes claimed that Stacy admitted to the crime while they were in the Los Angeles County Jail.

That petition resulted in the discovery that Hayes’s true name was Charles Jones, that he had an extensive history of trading information in Kentucky for leniency. Moreover, he had dozens of convictions—not two—and Kentucky law enforcement had stopped relying upon him because he was a serial liar. In fact, he admitted that he lied in Stacy’s trial—resulting in Stacy’s conviction being overturned and a new trial granted. [Stacy later pled guilty to a reduced charge in exchange for his release].

At the same time, Allison was engaged in a long court battle based on a federal petition for habeas corpus—the proceedings lasted 18 years. During that litigation, Seifert was questioned under oath during a deposition. He testified that during Bonner’s trial, he realized at one point that Hayes had lied. Seifert claimed in the deposition that he had told the jury that Hayes had lied.

Detective John Miller was also questioned under oath. He testified that he and the other investigating officer, William Collette, didn’t believe that Bonner entered the apartment or was involved in the crime. “My partner and I discussed it, and we discussed ... that he had no involvement in killing the victim,” Miller testified.

In July 2010, U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder vacated Allison’s death sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing. The judge concluded that it was “more likely than not" that the theory Seifert presented at Bonner’s trial that Allison and Bonner were both present in Polk’s apartment around the time of the shooting "was the truth,” and that the theory presented by Seifert at Allison’s trial—that Allison went alone into Polk’s apartment—“was false.”

The judge pointed to evidence that it took more than one person to lift the box of records in Polk’s apartment; that Bonner’s fingerprint was found on the stereo removed from Bonner’s apartment positioned in such a way that Bonner could have carried the stereo out of the apartment under his arm; that witnesses saw Bonner drive up to the apartment and testified he could have entered into the apartment unseen; and that fuses matching those used in Bonner’s car were found on the ground at the scene of the crime, suggesting Bonner got out of the car.

Judge Snyder credited statements from Hayes and another jailhouse informant, Roderick Adams, who was not called as a witness at Bonner’s trial, that Bonner admitted shooting Polk. Synder did not credit Adams's recantation and claim that Allison asked him to implicate Bonner.

“The Court need not, and does not, accept as truthful every aspect of these statements to find that the declarants were telling the truth when they said that Bonner was present in Polk’s apartment at some point around the time of the shooting,” Judge Snyder ruled.

Moreover, Judge Snyder said it was “more likely than not” that Seifert knew the theory presented at Allison’s trial was false. The judge noted that during a deposition in Allison’s habeas case, he admitted that “his strategy of arguing…that [Allison] had to have been the shooter because Bonner never set foot in Polk’s apartment was ‘a boo-boo,’ ‘the big oops.’”

Ultimately, Allison was resentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

During those years, Bonner had sought relief through a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, but it was dismissed as being filed too late. The prosecution never informed Bonner’s defense lawyers of the revelations in the Stacy or Allison case.

In 2018, California passed legislation amending the state’s felony murder law to limit the filing of murder charges to those accused of actually killing or intending to kill. Bonner, acting without a lawyer, joined about 1,600 other prisoners seeking relief under the new statute.

On July 8, 2019, Bonner, represented by appointed attorney Bryan Schroeder, appeared in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Daniel Lowenthal. But instead of resentencing him, Lowenthal vacated Bonner’s convictions and ordered him released.

Unlike Judge Snyder, Judge Lowenthal concluded that the prosecution's theory in Bonner's trial that he was the gunman—not Allison—was false.

Judge Lowenthal criticized Seifert’s conduct, noting that Seifert’s claim during his deposition that he had argued to the jury in Bonner’s trial that Hayes had lied was false. In fact, Lowenthal noted, Seifert called Officer Collette back to the witness stand to buttress Hayes’s testimony, even though he knew Hayes had lied.

Hayes lied in the answer to the first question that Seifert posed at Bonner’s trial, the judge noted, when he said his name was Michael Hayes—instead of Charles Jones.

“That the death penalty was sought against someone based on testimony that was known to be false is horrifying and shocks the conscience,” Lowenthal declared. He noted that Hayes testified that Bonner told him he shot Polk with a .357-caliber revolver, but in fact Polk was shot with a .22-caliber weapon.

“Hayes testified that Bonner told him he shot him once. Polk was shot twice,” Judge Lowenthal said. Hayes testified, the judge noted, that Bonner told him he awoke Polk and then killed him, but in fact, witnesses said they saw Polk and Allison enter the apartment moments before the crime.

“The presentation of inconsistent theories in sequential trials against co-defendants, absent new evidence, violates due process,” Lowenthal declared. “Especially if, as here, the prosecutors knew the theory advanced was false.”

When prosecutor Evelis De Garmo objected that Lowenthal was going beyond what he was allowed to do under the statute—that the law “does not say you get to make the decision unilaterally”—Lowenthal said, “Well, unfortunately, it does.”

“The gentleman’s petition is granted,” Lowenthal said. “The conviction is vacated. I am not going to resentence him because of the gross prosecutorial misconduct—the due process violations created by the prosecutor’s presentation of inconsistent theories and his knowing presentation of perjury testimony….Separately, I would urge [District Attorney Jackie Lacey] to examine whether there are any other convictions that were procured in the same unscrupulous manner. And if so, to take immediate—”

Prosecutor De Garmo interjected: “I object to that, your honor, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t interrupt me,” Lowenthal said.

“That is very offensive,” De Garmo replied.

“Don’t interrupt me or you are going to be removed from court,” Lowenthal declared. “And if so, to take immediate correction action. Mr. Bonner is ordered released. He is not subject to parole supervision. He’s released today. That’s all.”

De Garmo asked Lowenthal to stay the order of release to allow the prosecution to appeal. “A stay is not granted,” Lowenthal said.

Bonner was released. Meanwhile, the prosecution filed a notice that it would appeal Lowenthal’s ruling. However, on November 19, 2019, the prosecution dismissed that appeal.

On February 10, 2020, Judge Lowenthal, acting on a petition filed by attorney Andrew Stein, declared Bonner factually innocent. The judge noted that it was “absolutely tragic” that the information of Hayes’s lies—known for decades—“wasn’t shared with Mr. Bonner and Mr. Bonner continued to sit in a maximum-security prison, predicated on a conviction utilizing an informant that we collectively, since 1996, knew was unreliable….It’s just tragic.”

“Every piece of evidence that has subsequently been received discredits the case when Mr. Bonner was arrested, brought to preliminary examination and trial,” the judge said.

Bonner was represented at his trial in 1983 by attorney Ron Slick, who became known as “Dr. Death” because so many of his clients—eight—were sentenced to death.

Among other clients represented by Slick were Senon Grajeda and Oscar Morris, who were later exonerated. He also represented Andre Burton, whose 1985 conviction and death sentence were set aside. In early 2020, Burton was still awaiting a retrial.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/11/2020
Last Updated: 4/6/2020
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1982
Convicted:1983
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No