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Lawyer's Dedication Helps Free Wrongly Convicted Family Friend

Alison Tucher never lost interest in Rick Walker's murder case. After 12 years in jail, her efforts persuaded a judge that he is innocent.

June 15, 2003|Karen Alexander | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Alison Tucher was in her final year of Stanford Law School when Quedellis Ricardo Walker was wrongly convicted of murdering Lisa Hopewell, his ex-girlfriend. That was in 1991.

Walker, who goes by the name Rick, returned joyfully to his mother's home in East Palo Alto, Calif., last week because Tucher, now an attorney in San Francisco, unearthed new evidence that persuaded prosecutors and a judge to set him free.

A dozen years in the making, Tucher and Walker's triumph over a disturbing injustice is the culmination of a deep friendship between two families that refused to give up on each other.

The lawyer's mother, Carolyn Tucher, was serving her first year on the school board in prosperous Palo Alto when she befriended Rick's mother, Myrtle Walker, her counterpart on the neighboring but impoverished Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto.

Divided by the Bayshore Freeway, the two cities and their children seemed to have little in common. But the two women worked together: visiting kindergarten classes in each other's districts, creating a joint arts program, coming to know and confide in one another through their mutual love of politics.

Alison, Carolyn's daughter, met Myrtle's son, Rick, for the first time when she visited him in the county jail. He had just been convicted of a horrible crime: taping Lisa Hopewell's mouth shut with duct tape and then slitting her throat. The promising young law student took an interest in his case because of their mothers' close friendship.

Walker was "persuasive in arguing his innocence" that day more than a decade ago, recalls Tucher. But she said it was her work years later, "talking to and learning about other witnesses that really convinced me he was innocent."

Although a Santa Clara Superior Court judge still must consider the evidence before Walker is formally declared innocent, the judge released him from Mule Creek State Prison on Monday. At a hearing Friday, the Santa Clara County district attorney's office said it would support Walker's attorney in her bid to have him declared factually innocent

The district attorney's office, which had convicted Walker, had taken the rare step of joining Tucher in seeking his immediate freedom. New testimony has been taken from five witnesses and new physical evidence has been collected that places another person -- now believed to be an accomplice in Lisa Hopewell's murder -- at the scene of the crime.

Court documents show Walker was framed by his co-defendant in the case, Rahsson Bowers, a drug dealer who killed Hopewell in her Cupertino home. Bowers left fingerprints at the scene, and then falsely accused Walker, according to the papers filed in court by Tucher and supported in a report by the district attorney's office. Bowers claimed that he had assisted with the crime because Walker had threatened to kill him if he did not.

As Walker and Bowers stood trial together, Bowers struck a plea deal with Santa Clara County prosecutors, gaining lenient treatment for himself, and protecting his true accomplice to the crime by testifying against Walker, Tucher said.

But Walker had an alibi for the night of the murder: He had spent a few days with a married woman at a nearby hotel. There were room service records to back the woman's statements.

Bowers' testimony was the only evidence presented against Walker; still, the young auto mechanic was sentenced to life in prison. His first parole hearing wouldn't have been until 2017.

Inside tough and austere Pelican Bay State Prison, Walker fought off despair by embarking on a rigorous quest for self-improvement. He painted pictures and immersed himself in Bible classes, eventually becoming a Bible study teacher.

He had been hanging with a reckless crowd before his arrest. But behind bars he focused on doing the right thing.

"I just looked at it as an opportunity to better myself," Walker said. "There are all kinds of paths in prison. You can choose to stay only with people who are doing the right things, and then the path gets smaller and smaller.... It's like the branches of a tree. Sometimes you find yourself out there on a limb, all alone."

Meanwhile, Tucher's legal career was flourishing. She landed a coveted Supreme Court clerkship for Justice David Souter and then a job as a prosecutor in the Santa Clara County district attorney's office, the same office that prosecuted Walker. Sometimes she helped Walker's father, who is now deceased, to collect information about the case.

After Myrtle Walker left the school board she went on to serve several terms on the East Palo Alto City Council, eventually becoming mayor.

For the first few years of Rick's sentence, Carolyn and her husband, Tony Tucher, kept in touch with him by mail, sending him letters and newspapers to read at Pelican Bay, in the far northwest corner of the state. When Walker was transferred in 1996 to the closer Mule Creek facility in Ione, about 120 miles from Palo Alto, Tony visited him four or five times a year.

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