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A Long, Bitter Wait for Freedom Ends : Courts: Man is released after serving 16 years for murder he and others say he did not commit. Witness recanted 7 years ago.

October 30, 1994|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAKERSFIELD — Growing up in this farm belt town in the 1960s, Charles Tomlin had no patience for the Bible verses his mother laid out for him each day or the flagrant racism that she and other blacks of the Dust Bowl generation abided with a certain turn of the cheek.

He liked easy money, an impulse that earned him the nickname "Treetop" when his mother scolded him for thinking money grew on trees. And he liked white women, which led to a new name on the streets, "Sweet Daddy," and a never-forgotten threat from Bakersfield police.

"They didn't approve of me messing with white girls," he said. "One detective told me: 'I'm going to break you.' I said, 'To break me, you're going to have to kill me.' "

They might as well have killed him, he said, for he has lived a kind of death ever since. For 16 years, Tomlin, 42, has been locked up for a drug killing he and others insist he did not commit--a first-degree murder conviction contrived, they say, by Bakersfield officers making good on their threat.

The last seven years have been especially bitter, for they have come after the state's one eyewitness--whose testimony was the only evidence against Tomlin--confessed to the court that she sent the wrong man to prison.

If he lost faith watching the best years of his life swallowed up by San Quentin and Soledad, his mother went about her thrice-weekly church routine in Bakersfield confident that the truth would emerge. "The devil is just busy," Quinolia Wells said. "So I talked to the Lord every day, all day."

On Thursday, a Beverly Hills attorney who took her son's appeal on a hunch called her to say the long wait was over. A federal district judge in Fresno had reversed the conviction on orders from the appeals court, which found that the case against Tomlin had been prejudiced at his 1979 trial by his first attorney's failure to challenge the eyewitness's testimony.

At 4:45 p.m. Friday, Tomlin walked out of Soledad State Prison, a free man.

"It's windy and sunny--and it's free," said Tomlin as he stood outside the prison looking at the mountains. He could not stop laughing. "My mom, my wife, my sister, my auntie . . . all here. I had to hold back the tears. You know, it's a man thing--my lawyer cried for me."

He won't be coming home to Bakersfield to stay, at least not if his mother can help it. Although there are no plans to retry him, "the detective who set him up still works here," she said. "It's not safe for Charles."

Detective Les Vincent, who headed the Tomlin investigation, would not return repeated phone calls seeking comment. His superior, Sgt. Ed Bowen, praised the homicide investigator's ability to "enforce the law without prejudice." The prosecutor who evaluated the evidence and argued the case also declined to comment, citing his new job as a Superior Court judge. "I see no useful purpose in answering questions about a case long ago when I had a different role," said Judge Len McGillivray.

But from the first days of the police investigation--when the eyewitness seemed to describe two different killers--to a pretrial lineup that was later deemed illegal, the Tomlin case seemed a rush to judgment. Black leaders believe it stands as a glaring example of what they have been decrying for years, that Kern County condones a two-tier system of justice--one for them and one for whites.

Racism still runs deep here, they say, a vestige of the Dust Bowl and the South. "This is a pretty hopeless place for black people," said the Rev. Ishmael Kimbrough of the People's Missionary Baptist Church, which Tomlin's mother attends. "We are isolated and insulated geographically, socially and politically. You do us in, there's not going to be any repercussions."

*

Wells was one of the forgotten Okies, a black sharecropper's daughter lost in the tide of rural whites who migrated to the area in the 1930s and '40s. The Bakersfield that greeted her was no promised land but rather a new land crueler for the dreams it mocked.

A single mother, she heeded the old racial divide. When she graduated from the cotton fields, it was to work as a housekeeper for a well-to-do white family. She lived on the black side of town, worshiped at a black church and warned her four children--Charles the oldest and only son--not to cross the line.

"I remember one Sunday Charles had his tie on and he told his mama he wasn't going to church," said Rodney Warren, a childhood friend. "She grabbed ahold of his tie and tore off all the buttons on his shirt. He put on a new one and went to church."

By his own account, Tomlin started selling marijuana at 14. He got kicked out of Bakersfield High School for beating up a white student who called him "the 'N' word." He was sent to West High, where he was one of a handful of blacks--and the only one bold enough to date attractive white girls.

"I was dating Jeanette or Judy, one of them or maybe both at the same time," Tomlin recalled. "Lot of dudes didn't like it."

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