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Derrick Harris

Other Los Angeles County, California exonerations
On July 1, 2013, two Black men, one holding a pistol, snatched a gold chain from the neck of 68-year-old Curtis Blackwell as he waited for a food order at Hawkins House of Burgers at Slater Street and Imperial Highway in Los Angeles, California.

Blackwell chased after the two men, who ran toward the Nickerson Gardens public housing development, but gave up when one of them pointed a gun at him. Blackwell told police that the gunman was 5 feet 7 inches tall, 150 pounds, 30 to 35 years old with short hair, a receding hairline and a beard. The second man, who grabbed the chain, was 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, 24 to 27 years old and shirtless. A “B” was tattooed on one side of his chest and an “H” on the other side.

Sharon Kim was a Los Angeles police officer assigned to the Nickerson Gardens Community Safety Partnership and was familiar with many of the residents, including members of the Bounty Hunter Bloods street gang. Kim believed that the descriptions fit 21-year-old Derrick Harris and 20-year-old Desmen Mixon, although both were younger than the men Blackwell had described. Kim passed the information to a detective, who created two photographic arrays of six photos each. Blackwell identified Harris and Mixon, although the array containing Harris was highly suggestive, a form of official misconduct. The perpetrator was described as 5’ 7”, 150 pounds, 30 to 35 years old, having a dark complexion, short hair with a receding hairline, and a beard. However, in the photo array, two of the six were bald. Of the remaining four photos, Harris was the only one with a receding hairline and a beard.

On July 18, 2013, police arrested Harris, who denied involvement, and confiscated his cell phone. Mixon was arrested soon after and claimed that although he was in the parking lot at the time of the robbery, two other men committed the crime. Mixon admitted that he had the initials “B” and “H” tattooed on his chest and that the initials stood for Bounty Hunter.

Detective Leonard Felix examined Harris’s and Mixon’s cell phones. Mixon’s phone showed incoming and outgoing text messages to and from another cell phone. Mixon sent a text at 7:20 p.m. on July 1, 2013: “I just chase a [racial slur] worn a gun.” At 8:00 p.m., he sent another text message: “I just hit a lick. Yeah. Yeah, babe.” A minute later he sent another text: “I need you ASAP.”

The only information recovered from Harris’s phone was another phone number that was not Mixon’s cell number.

Harris and Mixon went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court in December 2013. Blackwell identified both of them as the robbers. The prosecution called a Los Angeles police officer who was an expert on street gangs. The officer said that Harris and Mixon were members of the Bounty Hunter Bloods gang. However, the expert could not recall ever seeing Mixon and Harris together or seeing any police reports documenting them as being together.

Harris testified and denied committing the crime. He said that he spent the day before with his girlfriend, Keisha Brown, in Long Beach to celebrate their anniversary. He said he drank too much and spent the night as well as the next day with her, going out only to get Alka-Seltzer, tea and ginger ale. Brown also testified and corroborated Harris’s account.

Officer Kim testified that Harris was not known as a violent person and that it would have been out of character for Harris to commit a robbery.

On December 16, 2013, the jury convicted Harris and Mixon of robbery, possession of a firearm, and violating a gang injunction. Harris was sentenced to 15 years in prison and Mixon was sentenced to 21 years in prison.

After the trial, Harris’s defense attorney, Deputy Public Defender Elizabeth Warner-Sterkenburg, asked Officer Kim to continue asking for information in the case.

In February 2014, an anonymous caller contacted the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office to say he had been at the restaurant on the day of the robbery. He accurately described how Blackwell drove up on a three-wheeled motorcycle and ordered food. The caller said two men, including one who was shirtless with “B” and “H” tattooed on his chest, suddenly left, walked to Nickerson Gardens, and quickly returned. The caller said one walked up to Blackwell and ripped off his chain and then both ran back to Nickerson Gardens. The caller said that Blackwell chased until one pulled a gun and Blackwell backed off. The caller was directed to look at a photograph of Harris on Harris’s Facebook page. He said he was sure Harris was not involved.

A motion for new trial was filed based on the caller’s report, but the motion was denied. The judge refused to grant a new trial based on the statement of an anonymous witness.

In November 2014, Kim learned that Mixon had committed the crime with another member of the Bounty Hunter Bloods known as “Little Rock.” After getting the same information from two sources, Kim informed Warner-Sterkenburg, who then passed the information to the trial prosecutor.

On February 4, 2015, Keisha Brown told Warner-Sterkenburg that Mixon sent her a letter of apology that said: “Derrick is innocent, and he is the victim of mistaken identity.”

Shortly thereafter, the trial prosecutor reported that “Little Rock” was named Corey Duplessis and was in prison serving a six-year sentence for burglary. Duplessis resembled the description of the gunman, although, like Harris, he was younger than the 30+ estimate Blackwell had given.

Warner-Sterkenburg and Public Defender Investigator Steve Lewis interviewed Duplessis in prison. He said, “I want to help. I have something in my heart that I want to say. I want to say. If I tell you, I’ll end up doing more time. I’ll be back in court.”

On July 2, 2018, Mixon sent a declaration to Warner-Sterkenburg that said: “Derrick Harris is not the man that committed the robbery with me. Derrick Harris is innocent and was in no way involved in the robbery of Curtis Blackwell.”

In May 2020, the California Innocence Project asked the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU) to investigate the case. In September 2020, the CRU interviewed Mixon, who re-iterated that Harris was not involved. While he declined to name his accomplice, Mixon said he was not a resident of Nickerson Gardens. Duplessis was not a resident there.

A review of Mixon’s cell phone records showed multiple phone calls with Duplessis, although there were none on the day of the robbery. A review of Harris’s phone showed no calls to or from Duplessis before or after the robbery.

On September 28, 2020, the CRU interviewed Duplessis in prison. At first, he admitted that he was a bystander. When he was informed that the statute of limitations had expired and he could not be prosecuted, Duplessis confessed to committing the crime with Mixon. Duplessis said that Harris was not a member of the Bounty Hunter Bloods and was not present that day. Duplessis asked the CRU to apologize to Harris for him.

On October 2, 2020, the prosecution and Harris’s attorney from the California Innocence Project, Michael Semanchik, presented a joint motion to vacate Harris’s convictions. On October 6, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan granted the motion and the charges were dismissed.

Harris was then released, more than seven years after his arrest.

“This case underscores the important ethical duty of every prosecutor to continue to seek justice, even if it requires us to admit that a mistake was made,” Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a news release. “I am grateful to the man who told the truth, that Mr. Harris was not involved in this crime, which ignited our investigation of this case.”

In December 2020, Harris was awarded $379,540 in state compensation. In 2021, Harris filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the city and county of Los Angeles, the sheriff's department, and others, seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/26/2020
Last Updated: 7/17/2022
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:Other Nonviolent Felony
Reported Crime Date:2013
Sentence:15 years
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No