Two California death row prisoners released

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In the space of one week last month, two men walked out of prison, each of whom had spent decades on death row.

Freddie Lee Taylor was convicted of the 1985 attempted rape and murder of Carmen Carlos Vasquez in Richmond. After his conviction, he filed numerous appeals on the grounds that he was incompetent to stand trial because of his lifelong history of severe mental illness, and the fact that his trial judge had failed to order a competency hearing.

In 2016, a federal judge ruled in his favor, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling in December, saying the district court had correctly determined that “a retrospective competency hearing was not feasible,” because of the passage of time, and the unavailability of medical reports assessing his mental state at the time of the crime.

Contra Costa County prosecutors decided against retrying the 58-year-old Taylor, after he agreed to a plea bargain in which he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was released on February 20 for time served. He had been on death row for 33 years.

One week earlier, on February 14, James Hardy was released from prison in Los Angeles County after serving a total of 37-1/2 years, the majority of them on death row. He was convicted in 1983 of the murder of Nancy Morgan and her son, Mitchell Morgan, and was sentenced to death. Hardy was tried with two co-defendants, Mark Reilly, and Clifford Morgan, who was the husband and father of the two victims, and was accused of ordering the murders to collect insurance money. Hardy appealed his sentence on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel, and in 2007, the California Supreme Court vacated his death sentence, finding that his public defender had failed to present mitigating evidence, i.e., that the prosecution’s key witness may have been the actual killer, but upheld his conviction.

The Ninth Circuit then overturned his conviction in 2016, and called for a new trial. Instead, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office agreed to a plea deal in which Hardy pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and was released for time served. He had been on death row for 24 years.

The Death Penalty Information Center stated on its website that while “both men have claims of innocence. . . their plea deals make them ineligible for DPIC’s Innocence List.”

(This post has been updated to correct an error regarding the charges against Freddie Lee Taylor. He was convicted of attempted rape. The jury rejected the special circumstance allegation that the murder was committed while engaged in the commission of attempted rape.)

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