George Leone stopped by the police station in Anaheim, California, on his way home from work in March 1974 at the request of an officer. Leone, who worked for the Anaheim Parks Department, assumed the request related to updating his city identification card to reflect his new position as a groundskeeper at a local golf course. Instead, he learned he had been accused of sexual abuse by two boys – ages eight and nine years old – who lived in his neighborhood, and he was placed under arrest. Leone was acquainted with the boys, who occasionally came by his home to visit his small dog or have milk and cookies with his wife.
The older boy accused Leone of abusing him and the other alleged victim on multiple occasions. He claimed Leone had forced them to look at explicit pictures, molested them, masturbated and urinated in front of them, and swung from the chandelier. When interviewed, the younger boy agreed with the older boy’s claims. Leone was fired from his job within 24 hours of his arrest.
Leone and his wife hired Robert Brodie to defend him. To pay for the defense, they sold their new home, and both sets of their parents delayed retirement to earn additional money.
Judge John Flynn Jr. presided over Leone’s jury trial in Orange County Superior Court in October 1974. Deputy District Attorney Paul Meyer prosecuted the case. “In the final analysis, it was a case of them saying I did something and me saying I didn’t,” Leone said of the trial. After five days of deliberation, the jury found Leone guilty on 14 counts.
Following his conviction, Leone spent 90 days in state prison before his sentencing. This 90-day period was intended to allow for the evaluation of Leone’s mental state. The prison examiners found that because Leone would not admit guilt, he could not be rehabilitated, and they recommended an active prison sentence. Despite this recommendation, which included the option to sentence Leone to life in prison, Judge Flynn gave Leone a suspended sentence, with five years of probation. Judge Flynn would later say that that he “just had one of those sort of feelings – a skimmering [sic] of doubt in the back of my mind.”
Leone’s sentencing took place in January 1975. A few days later, the younger of the two accusers told his parents that he had lied and Leone had not abused him. The older boy then recanted his claims. Their families contacted Paul Meyer. After interviewing the boys, Meyer said he believed their recantations and sought to have Leone’s conviction vacated.
After the dismissal of the charges against him, Leone and his attorney learned that the younger accuser claimed that he had denied that Leone had abused him in his first interview with police. He stated that after his repeated denials of any abuse by Leone, Anaheim police officer Vera Wilson had played him a recording of the older boy’s claims, and eventually the younger boy had agreed the older boy’s claims were true. Wilson admitted that she had erased the recording of the younger boy’s initial denials and taped over that portion of the tape with his later statement in which he agreed with the older boy’s claims.
On the basis of this information, Leone filed a $1.5 million civil lawsuit against the City of Anaheim, Orange County, and Wilson, claiming Wilson’s destruction of exculpatory evidence had violated his constitutional rights. The parties settled out of court for $200,000 in December 1980.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.