Melvin Mikes has been a free man for a month, but he still carries a copy of his prison identification card in his wallet--a reminder, he says, "of what can go wrong."
For Mikes, the card is a bittersweet memento of a chain of events that began in 1985, when he was arrested for a Long Beach murder he swears he did not commit. Mikes was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life based solely on the fact that his fingerprints were found at the crime scene and on the murder weapon--a turnstile bar that had once been used at the entrance of a hardware store.
Mikes' former employer said recently that she was willing to testify that Mikes was elsewhere when the murder occurred. But she was never called.
After nearly seven years of court battles, a federal panel of judges ruled that Mikes' conviction was based on insufficient evidence and ordered him set free. Last month, Mikes made good on a long overdue promise, racing from Corcoran State Prison to his 12-year-old son's elementary school so that they could walk home together for the first time.
"I went through a lot because of this," Mikes, 32, said in one of several recent interviews with The Times. "I lost a lot. And I never killed anyone."
Mikes' case is that rarest of rarities in the American system of justice: one in which a defendant manages to persuade the federal courts to take a second look at the evidence in a state case and find that the judge and jury erred. Even experienced criminal lawyers can count on one hand the number of times they have seen the courts intervene in that way.
"It's extraordinarily unusual," said noted criminal defense lawyer Barry Tarlow, a former federal prosecutor. "This must have struck the court as an obvious miscarriage of justice."
Mikes knows how unusual his case is.
"I believe it was God, without a doubt," said Mikes, his voice dropping to a murmur. "I kept trying to prove that I didn't do it . . . (but) even I lost faith after a while. I believe it was the Lord who got me out of there at last."
Along the road to vindication, Mikes' mother died, his brother committed suicide and his marriage dissolved. He has battled and beaten the Long Beach Police Department, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and the attorney general of California. And although Mikes believes he deserves an apology from the government that put him behind bars, he is not likely to get it.
"I still to this day believe he was guilty," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Carbaugh, who won the verdict against Mikes. "If I felt he was not guilty, I would have fought to have him released."
The saga began on the afternoon of March 10, 1980, when someone broke into the fix-it shop of Harold Hansen, tied him up and beat him to death in the course of a robbery. The murder weapon, investigators determined, was a three-foot chrome pipe that was part of a dismantled turnstile. A total of 46 fingerprints were recovered from the crime scene, including those on the weapon. Of those, 16 were identifiable and six belonged to Mikes.
Police were able to match Mikes' prints because, as he admits, his young adult life was not exactly untarnished.
Mikes said that although he had never been to prison he had been arrested for stealing a car, shoplifting and drug offenses. His brothers also were in and out of trouble, and all of them were well known to police in South-Central Los Angeles, where they lived.
So when police determined years later that some fingerprints on the metal bar were Mikes', they concluded that they had finally wrapped up the 5-year-old case. To be sure, the case was not airtight: Police never found any witnesses to testify that Mikes had been to the fix-it shop and none of the recovered stolen items had Mikes' fingerprints on them.
Instead, prosecutors argued that the metal posts had been stored for several months in Hansen's basement, where no one other than Hansen and the people who broke into his shop could have handled them. Therefore, prosecutors said, Mikes could only have touched the metal bar during the break-in and murder.
Mikes' public defender considered that to be flimsy evidence because it failed to take into account the possibility that Mikes could have touched the posts prior to Hansen buying them. Rather than call witnesses to testify regarding Mikes' whereabouts on the day of the murder, the lawyer moved for the case to be dismissed on the grounds that the fingerprint evidence was insufficient to warrant a conviction.
Other experienced lawyers say they might have done the same thing if faced with a "fingerprints-only" case, but one consequence of that decision was that the jury never heard from Dorothy Osby. Osby, who works for a union, said recently that she could have explained that Mikes was not at the scene of the crime.
Osby said that between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on March 10, 1980--the hours when authorities say Hansen was killed--Mikes was walking a picket line at a medical facility.