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William DePalma

Convicted of the robbery of a Savings & Loan Association in Buena Park, California, in 1968, William DePalma was exonerated in 1974 when it was discovered that the fingerprint testimony that served as the primary evidence against him had been falsified by a police sergeant.

In 1968, DePalma, a catering truck driver, was convicted of bank robbery by a jury and sentenced to fifteen years in federal prison. His conviction was based on eyewitness identifications and the testimony by Buena Park Police Sergeant James Bakken, who identified a fingerprint found on the bank counter as belonging to DePalma.

DePalma’s motion for a new trial was denied. He was incarcerated in Washington State’s McNeil Island Federal Prison, desperate to prove his innocence. DePalma contacted private investigator John Bond to vindicate him. DePalma was nearly broke, but Bond was intrigued by his case and agreed that if DePalma passed a lie detector test, he would take his case for only the cost of his expenses. DePalma passed the polygraph and Bond went to work.

Bond reached out to fingerprint experts who found that the fingerprint evidence used to convict DePalma had been falsified using a photocopy machine. One of the fingerprints DePalma provided when he was arrested had been copied and presented as the print found at the crime scene. The presence of Bakken’s fingerprints on the duplication of the prints suggested Bakken was responsible for the fraud.

Faced with the testimony from several fingerprint experts confirming that DePalma’s prints had been falsified, the trial judge set aside DePalma’s conviction and dismissed the charges against him in February 1974.
Bakken was not charged with a crime in the DePalma case because the statute of limitations had run, but he was indicted by the Orange County, California grand jury for falsifying fingerprints in an unrelated marijuana case. He was convicted and sentenced to one year in the county jail.

William DePalma filed a $5.3 million federal suit against Sergeant Bakken and the City of' Buena Park, but, shortly before the suit went to trial on August 12, 1975, he accepted a settlement of $750,000. DePalma later said he believed he would have received a larger settlement had he pursued the legal action further.

- Researched by Katie Welnhofer
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1967
Sentence:15 Years
Age at the date of crime:30
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct