Man Rots in Prison Two Years after Judge Says He’s Innocent

Thursday, August 23, 2012
Don Larsen

Daniel Larsen has had two years in prison to think about the meaning of habeas corpus, while waiting to find out if a ruling by the federal courts—that he is innocent of crimes he was convicted of years ago—would lead to his freedom.

He’s going to have to wait a bit longer.

The U.S. Supreme Court has written that habeas corpus “is the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action.” The Latin phrase means “bring me the body” and is a judicial directive generally not taken lightly by law enforcement.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office opposes the release of Larsen and is appealing the court decision. They maintain that he is guilty of the crime, but the basis of their legal argument for keeping him being bars is more technical. The AG’s office says he missed the deadline for filing his federal habeas corpus claim. Larsen’s attorneys say he would have filed it earlier, but he hadn’t exhausted his appeals at the state level.

Habeas corpus has been a touchstone of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence for a thousand years, and is explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution. That hasn’t prevented it from becoming a political battleground and a popular cause of law-and-order conservatives.

In 1996, coming on the heels of the Oklahoma City killings, Congress passed The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which set up a one-year filing deadline and made it nearly impossible to file more than one petition, even if new evidence is uncovered later. Subsequent court rulings further restrained habeas corpus.

A subtext to Larsen’s plight is a fear among law enforcement that a case like his might blur the line as to when a case is finally over and lead to a significant increase in retrials of cases, including those with less merit.

Larsen has been incarcerated since a 1998 fight outside a Los Angeles-area bar ended in his arrest. Two police officers said they spotted him with a knife and his conviction, combined with two earlier burglary convictions, earned him a three-strikes sentence of 28-years-to-life.

Larsen said another guy had the knife and there were witnesses. His lawyer never called any, earning himself a federal court rebuke down the road and, ultimately, disbarment.

The California Innocence Project, based at the California Western School of Law, took Larsen’s case and began filing petitions on his behalf in 2005.

In April 2010, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Suzanne H. Segal―after listening to three eye-witnesses, including a former North Carolina police chief, identify a different man as having the knife―recommended that the conviction be reversed and U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder agreed after acknowledging technical arguments about missed filing deadlines.  

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Man Behind Bars 2 Years after Judge Orders Release (by Victoria Kim and Weston Phippen, Los Angeles Times)

California Man Still in Prison Two Years after Conviction Overturned (by Eric Pfeiffer, Yahoo! News)

Daniel Larsen (California Innocence Project)

Los Angeles Judge Reverses Charges after 12 Years of Wrongful Incarceration (California Western School of Law)

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