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Wrongly Jailed Man Tries to Cope With Injustice : Law: Gordon Robert Hall, who served three years for a 1978 murder he didn't commit, won a $4.4-million judgment from the county. He says money won't erase the nightmare.

July 15, 1993|PHILIP P. PAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THE REGION — More than a decade after he spent three years in prison for a murder he did not commit, Gordon Robert Hall says he still remembers.

He remembers how sheriff's deputies handcuffed him outside a birthday party in Duarte, shined a flashlight in his face and asked two men in a patrol car if he was the man who killed their brother. That was 15 years ago, and he was 16.

He remembers asserting his innocence during a weeklong trial in which prosecutors kept talking about the crimes of barrio street gangs. It took the jury one day to return a guilty verdict.

And he remembers Duell Vocational Institute, the state prison facility in Tracy where he lived for 1,008 days. Instead of returning to high school that fall, Hall learned to defend himself, to watch his back during prison brawls, to fit in with the violent men who were his cellmates.

"I was innocent, the youngest and the smallest in there," the 31-year-old San Gabriel Valley resident said. "I saw a lot of things that I wasn't supposed to see. I didn't think about getting out. I was just trying to survive."

While he languished in prison, his family hired a new attorney and fought to clear his name and free him. Three years later, in 1981, two key witnesses admitted misidentifying him, and the California Supreme Court reversed his conviction.

Last month, Hall won a $4.4-million jury judgment against Los Angeles County. That settled a 12-year-old civil suit in which Hall argued that the district attorney's office and the Sheriff's Department violated his civil rights and ignored ample evidence that they had the wrong man.

County officials have said they will probably appeal the judgment.

"What they took from me, what they did to my family, I can never get back," Hall said. "I can never have those three years (in prison) back."

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge dismissed the jury and ruled against him in the first civil trial in 1987. But a state appellate court overturned the decision and ordered a second trial. The jury delivered its judgment June 25.

Hall said he hopes it sends a message to the Sheriff's Department.

"I don't want anybody to go through what I went through," said the man who was convicted and exonerated of the 1978 murder of Jesse Ortiz, a mail deliverer killed in a drive-by shooting near Duarte.

Hall's case received wide publicity at the time and gained intense interest in the Latino community; Hall is half Mexican-American. Many Latino activists believed Hall was innocent, and believed they knew who the real killer was. But police never found evidence to prove their suspicions.

Hall's defenders were also upset by the prosecution tactic of labeling Hall as a gang member. Hall has maintained that he was not involved with any gangs. His only prior criminal record was a conviction for vandalism.

Police apprehended Hall after they raided a birthday party in a house four blocks from the shooting scene when they found a car in front of the house that matched a description of the killer's car. Hall, who fled when the police burst in, was found shirtless and hiding in a bush outside; because of his suspicious behavior, the police brought him to the victim's brothers, who said they recognized him as the killer.

No other arrests were ever made in the case.

Hermez Moreno, Hall's attorney, urged the county to accept the jury's decision instead of appealing. In a press conference, Moreno blasted county officials for refusing to admit that they had made a mistake.

"In order to spare the taxpayers the costs of a trial, in order to spare the family the grief of reliving the nightmare," the county should settle the matter, he said.

Bob Ambrose, assistant county counsel, said the county is reviewing a possible appeal and still maintains that it has no liability because of prosecutorial immunity.

Reflecting on his lengthy legal battle, Hall is soft-spoken and seems a little relieved as he leans back in his chair and discusses the recent victory. His mother, Bertha, sits at his side.

Hall said his thoughts often wander to those three years he spent in prison and how they changed his life.

"When I first got out of prison, I thought the scales of justice were even. Then I realized I was in another world," he said.

During those years in prison, his mother divorced his stepfather. The family also sold their property--two houses--to pay about $200,000 in legal fees, and was practically broke when Hall got out of prison. Even his dog had run away.

After Hall was freed, he and his mother and brother lived for a time with his grandparents, and he tried to continue his education at East Los Angeles College. But financial problems forced him to drop out. His father, who died when he was 3, left a pension that would have covered college costs, but Hall was in prison during the time the pension program covered.

"Looking for jobs was hard. I had no training. I had nothing," Hall recalled.

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