A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that a Venice man imprisoned more than 20 years in the murder of a florist shop owner was wrongly convicted and ordered his swift release.
The decision means that Timothy Atkins, now 40, who was convicted of second-degree murder and two robbery counts as an accomplice in an attempted carjacking on New Year's Day in 1985, could be freed without bail as soon as today. Judge Michael A. Tynan, who was the original trial judge in the case, ordered Atkins' release after a key prosecution witness recanted her testimony.
"Today was as good as it possibly could have gone for our side," said Justin Brooks, Atkins' lead lawyer and director of the California Innocence Project. "A reversal of a conviction and releasing without bail was amazing, and it was the right decision." He said Atkins was "really in shock" from the decision "and won't believe it" until he is actually freed.
Prosecution witness Denise Powell testified at a preliminary hearing two decades ago that Atkins told her that he and a companion "offed" florist Vincente Gonzales. But Powell told the court last year that she had been lying to impress her neighbors.
Tynan found that Powell's turnabout unraveled the case, saying in his order Thursday that, "absent Powell's testimony, no reasonable judge or jury would have convicted Atkins."
The judge also noted that the victim's wife, Maria Gonzales, who was splattered with blood when her husband was killed by a shotgun blast to the chest, caught only a one-second glimpse of a suspect and described him as being 5 feet 4. Atkins, the judge noted, was 6 feet tall. Her subsequent identification of Atkins was "highly questionable, if not totally unreliable," Tynan said.
Tynan ruled that "although the law recognizes an interest in the finality of judgments in criminal matters, it also recognizes the substantial interest that justice be served and that the innocent not suffer for crimes they have not committed."
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office could refile charges during the next 60 days. Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the office, said no decision has been made and she offered no reaction to Tynan's ruling. "We're reviewing our options," she said. Brooks expressed confidence that prosecutors will decide "they have no case."
"This wasn't a reversal on a technicality," he said. "This was a judge reviewing the original evidence and saying that there was false evidence brought in against [Atkins] and it was sufficient to undermine the conviction. That's very powerful."
Brooks noted that Atkins, who had been accused of being the accomplice and taking Maria Gonzales' necklace, endured severe hardship in prison. Atkins was beaten while a teenager in prison, and required a lengthy hospitalization, he said. The alleged shooter, Ricky Evans, was killed in prison before his trial.
Atkins plans to go to work for a community group, Venice 2000, and to earn a degree in counseling, Brooks said. "Timothy realizes that he was involved with some of the wrong people back then," Brooks said.