California man is freed on DNA evidence after 38 years in prison

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“What has happened to Mr. Hastings is a terrible injustice,” Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón said at a news conference announcing Maurice Hastings’ release late last month. “The justice system is not perfect, and when we learn of new evidence which causes us to lose confidence in a conviction, it is our obligation to act swiftly.”

Hastings, now 69, was sentenced to life without parole in 1988 for the sexual assault and murder of Roberta Wydermyer five years earlier. At his 1984 trial, the prosecutor wanted a death sentence, but it was a hung jury. He was convicted at his second trial and sentenced to life without parole. 

Hastings always maintained his innocence and even refused a plea deal that would have allowed parole if he admitted to the crime. 

He tried for years to get DNA testing beginning in 2000, but was repeatedly denied by the LA district attorney’s office. Finally, Paula Mitchell, director of the Los Angeles Innocence Project, interceded and, working with the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, was able to get a DNA test in June. In early October, the results of the test cleared Hastings and implicated a man who had been convicted of committing a similar crime and had been sentenced to 56 years in prison. (He died in 2000.)

On October 20, the district attorney’s office joined with the LAIP in asking the court to vacate Hastings’ conviction and release Hastings from prison immediately. The court agreed.

“I prayed for many years that this day would come. I am not pointing fingers; I am not standing up here a bitter man, but I just want to enjoy my life now while I have it,” Hastings said at the news conference, CBS News reported.

The press conference was joyful. DPF President Mike Farrell joined Mitchell, a former DPF board member, Gascón, and Hastings in addressing the media. Also present was Andrew Wilson, another man who was wrongly convicted and served 32 years in a California prison. He, too, was exonerated with the help of Mitchell, who was then Legal Director at the Loyola Project for the Innocent at Loyola Law School. He told Mitchell about Hastings’ case and urged her to look into it. 

“Andrew and Maurice are two wonderful men who had lost a combined 70 years to this damned system, yet they were open and friendly and, in Andy’s case, generous and helpful,” Farrell said. “It was a wonderful event.”

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