Wrongful Imprisonment Lawsuits


He's Got 7 Million Ways to Tell Her 'I Love You'
In his wife's card is a copy of a $7-million check -- compensation for three lost years.
By Monte Morin
Times Staff Writer

February 14, 2004

Talk about a Valentine.

When Mark Bravo set out with his wife, Rosanne, on Friday for a weekend in Las Vegas, he carried with him a love note she is not likely to forget.

This morning, the 45-year-old Diamond Bar resident will give his wife a Valentine's card in which is tucked a copy of a $7-million check he received Friday.

The money is compensation for the three years Bravo was imprisoned by the state of California for a rape he did not commit.

"Rosanne never lost faith in her husband for the whole time," said his attorney, Hermez Moreno. "That's a lot of money, but she's not even going to look at the numbers. She doesn't really care about the money. She's concerned about him."

Bravo, a registered nurse who worked at Metropolitan State Hospital, was convicted in 1990 of raping a female patient. 

In 1993, the Innocence Project took an interest in Bravo's case and initiated DNA testing on the alleged victim's panties, a sheet and a blanket, Moreno said. The victim had recanted her testimony several times after Bravo was convicted. 

The DNA tests "proved, not only that the materials tested did not match [Bravo], but did not even match the alleged victim," Moreno said. 

A state appeals court awarded Bravo $5.3 million for the wrongful conviction, plus $2 million in interest, said Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office. 

The money was included in a Senate appropriations bill signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger several weeks ago. The check Bravo got Friday totaled $7,075,367.82.

Moreno said that, after fighting for years, it was a bit of a shock to receive the check. As he and Bravo went to the bank to deposit it, Bravo confided to his lawyer that he had not told his wife the news, because he couldn't believe it until the check actually cleared. Instead, he made a copy and decided to give it to her during their trip to Las Vegas this weekend.

"We really didn't expect to see a check for another four to six weeks," Moreno said. "This has been the only thing that the state has done efficiently. In that sense, it's been most shocking."

Moreno said he would receive "more than 30%, but less than 50%" of the $7 million as his fee.

Bravo now works at the California Youth Authority reception center in Norwalk, next door to the hospital where he was accused of rape. 

Since leaving prison in 1994, he has put himself through law school and is now pursuing a master's degree in nursing. He and his wife, also a registered nurse, have a son in his 20s training to become a firefighter.

Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Los Angeles Times

May 17, 2003

7 Convicted in Child Sex Case Get Settlement
Kern County will pay $4.25 million to end a suit by people jailed for a combined 34 years, who were freed when new evidence surfaced.

By John Johnson, Times Staff Writer

Kern County has agreed to pay $4.25 million to seven plaintiffs in a civil rights suit, the largest settlement arising out of infamous child abuse prosecutions two decades ago that critics dubbed the "Bakersfield Witch Hunts."

The plaintiffs spent a combined 34 years in prison on molestation charges, only to be freed when, among other things, new evidence cast doubt on the prosecution's case.

"We're satisfied," said Michael Snedeker, whose Portland, Ore., law firm represented three of the plaintiffs, "although it's small change for the loss of decades of liberty." The settlement to members of what law enforcement once called the Cox-Modahl ring is the latest, and by far the largest, of more than a dozen payouts to people swept up in the investigation.

In the mid-1980s, dozens of Kern County residents were convicted of sex crimes against their own children in the nation's largest prosecution of alleged molestation rings. Eight "rings" were uncovered by law enforcement, supposedly involving scores of predatory adults. An atmosphere of hysteria 
produced lurid accounts of satanic rituals, including blood-drinking and infanticide.

Despite the often-contradictory nature of the testimony by the children seen as victims, 50 parents were arrested and half were sent to prison for terms of as much as 200 years. While the convictions eased the fears of a town that believed it was under attack by highly organized child pornography and molestation rings, the cases began unraveling in appeals courts. Judges cited prosecutorial misconduct and denounced overzealous investigators for wheedling testimony out of children.

The state attorney general's office later issued a highly critical report on the handling of the cases, citing a "believe-the-children" attitude among investigators, a lack of hard evidence to back up allegations and improper questioning of alleged victims. The Modahl-Cox case involved three alleged victims, all children. The principal plaintiff in the suit was Jeffrey Modahl, who spent 15 years in prison before his sentence was reversed in 1999, when two pieces of evidence turned up that had been withheld from the defense in the original trial.

One piece was a 1984 medical examination of Modahl's 9-year-old stepdaughter. The exam raised doubts about whether she had been sodomized, as alleged by prosecutors.

The other piece of evidence was a tape recording of the interviews of the alleged victims.

After listening to the tape, Kern County Superior Court Judge John Kelly said the interviews had been conducted in a manner that probably elicited "false and unreliable accusations of sex abuse." While he did not find any proof that the evidence had been deliberately withheld from the defense, 
Kelly ruled that Modahl had been denied a fair trial.

Despite that finding, it was the possibility that a civil court jury might conclude that the evidence had been deliberately held back that caused the county to hand over the $4.25-million settlement. "If a jury concluded his civil rights were violated, a jury verdict would be cataclysmic," said County Counsel Mark Nations.

Snedeker, whose firm is one of three representing the plaintiffs, does not believe the evidence was withheld by mistake. "I don't see any other reasonable explanation" for why the tape and medical exam were not turned over to the defense, he said. Snedeker, who has helped free several of the 
defendants, said he used to believe the cases reflected simple overzealousness, but no longer.

He cited exchanges on the tape in which the investigators had flatly led the children, even supplying names of other potential abusers.

Settlements in the earlier cases totaled about $375,000, Nations said.

Modahl's was the last of the current lawsuits stemming from the child abuse cases. Only one potential case remains, that of a man who has been in prison for 18 years.

Opinion on the dozens of cases still varies widely. There are people who say the allegations were made up, while others believe the prosecution got it right and the defendants are getting out on technicalities.

A more moderate view is that there may have been abuse, but in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, investigators saw sex rings everywhere.

"A lot of these children were abused," said Nations. "Were they molested by all these people, or did we cast our net too wide? I don't know the answer to that."

Man paid by California for wrongful imprisonment is back in jail 

Thursday, May 1, 2003 
©2004 Associated Press 

URL:  sfgate.com/article.cgi?file=/news/archive/2003/05/01/state1917EDT0165.DTL

(05-01) 16:17 PDT LOS ANGELES (AP) -- 

The state will pay Leonard McSherry almost $500,000 in compensation for the 13 years he spent behind bars for a wrongful rape conviction. 

But he'll have to wait until he gets out of jail -- where he is awaiting trial on misdemeanor loitering charges -- before he can spend it. 

McSherry remained in jail Thursday in lieu of $250,000 bail. He faces a May 5 trial on five counts of misdemeanor loitering at elementary schools. 

McSherry has pleaded innocent. If convicted, he faces two years in jail. 

"They have him driving around various places and some of them happen to be schools," said lawyer Mark Overland, who represents McSherry. "He didn't talk to anybody. One count he was driving on the opposite side of the street and looked at the school." 

McSherry, 53, has filed a federal civil rights suit against the city of Long Beach and two of its police officers after DNA exonerated him and he was released from prison in 2001 in the 1988 rape of a 6-year-old girl. 

"He is alleging the officers manipulated the evidence against him," Overland said. 

Long Beach police referred calls on the case to city attorney Bill Ryder, who did not immediately return a telephone call. A civil trial date is currently set for Aug. 5. 

On Tuesday, state officials agreed to pay McSherry $481,000 compensation for the time he served on that conviction. 

The child, who was kidnapped from the Long Beach Navy Housing Project, identified McSherry as her attacker both in a photo lineup and on the witness stand. 

But DNA evidence matched a different inmate who is currently imprisoned for kidnapping and molestation of another young girl in 1997. 

©2004 Associated Press 


Unlikely legal eagle behind Cox ring reversals

By FRED LUDWIG, Californian staff writer 
e-mail:  fludwig@bakersfield.com
Saturday October 20, 2001, 10:28:13 PM 

Joe Burton is a brawler from way back. 

When he was doing time in San Quentin State Prison, it was the other inmates -- not Burton -- who had to worry, he told his family. And he apparently didn't treat the parole board with much greater respect, often standing with his arms folded and his back to officers. Sit down, they would tell him. "No," Burton would respond. 

Now Burton is 82, and his fighting days may be over. 

But he is still battling authority, challenging the convictions of friends he contends were swept up unfairly in the Kern County's notorious mid-1980s child molestation cases. 

"I've never seen nobody I was ever afraid of in my life," Burton said. 

Burton has helped win reversals that freed three people from prison and removed from the books the convictions of three others who had already served their sentences. 

His self-taught legal skills seem at odds with his high school education, thick country drawl and mangled grammar. But he has gotten results, and his work draws respect from some attorneys. 

The three freed defendants were part of one in a series of shocking cases from the 1980s alleging molestation rings, in which children were alleged to have been victimized by groups of adults. Some of the cases involved reports of cannibalism, satanism and ritualistic murder. 

The cases have since been overturned in large numbers, followed by several waves of wrongful imprisonment lawsuits against Kern County. 

Burton's work was in the so-called Cox molestation ring. The reversals started with the release of Jeffrey Modahl in 1999 after 15 years behind bars. Burton won Modahl a hearing, then turned the case over to a licensed attorney. Last month, Richard Cox became the sixth Cox-ring convict to win a reversal, clearing his name 10 years after he finished his sentence. 

"If not for the work he (Burton) did, none of this would have happened," said attorney Nancy Blanton, who won the release of George Leroy Cox after taking the appeal Burton launched. "All of them would still be in prison." 

Burton is married to Theresa Cox, sister of George and Richard Cox. Theresa Cox was also convicted in the molestation ring and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The two met when Burton was visiting another inmate in jail. Years later, Burton helped get Teresa Cox's conviction overturned and expunged from her record. 

Modahl's subsequent lawsuit alleges coercive questioning techniques by county officials led to his conviction despite his innocence. 

"They took every case of alleged child sex abuse and transmogrified it into a huge ring," said Modahl attorney Michael Snedeker. 

"I think they knew full well that may not have been correct," Snedeker said. 

The Cox criminal case first surfaced in 1984 with allegations against two brothers that grew to include other family members and friends. 

The reversals hinged in part on a finding that defense attorneys were not given a medical report that showed no sign of molestation of the accusers. Prosecutors said they didn't know about the report at the time of trial. 

Officials believe Modahl was guilty, said Chief Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations. County investigation in response to the suit has shown the defense did have the medical report, but may not have realized the value of it, Nations said. He would not elaborate. 

"The deeper we dig in the Modahl case, the more convinced we are his conviction should never have been reversed," Nations said. 

A U.S. District Court trial in the Modahl suit is on hold pending appeals by both sides of rulings over who should be named in the suit. 

A lawsuit by four others implicated with Modahl in the Cox case was filed this month, airing similar grievances. 

Burton now lives with Modahl and Richard Cox at Cox's large lot in rural south Bakersfield. Surrounded by equipment, sheds and more than a dozen vehicles, Cox and Modahl discussed the construction company they ran there in the 1980s. Now, the business is a much smaller car-repair shop. 

"Now he (Cox) claims he's too old to start over," Burton said, needling his friend. 

"I am," the 63-year-old Cox shot back. 

Cox sat against the back of a vehicle, digging at the dirt with his boot as he thought about the case. He stood abruptly and put his hands on hips, saying the arrest was the first time he had ever been in trouble. 

Even with his conviction now gone, there are still police documents with the allegations in files somewhere, Cox said. 

"Once you've been accused, it's not going to change," he said. "You still know there's still a rap sheet saying you're accused." 

The only conviction remaining from the group is that of Jo Hanna Cox, Richard Cox's wife, who was sentenced to 12 years and died in prison. Burton said he will file new paperwork soon to renew her appeal. 

Truth elusive 

The Modahl-Cox suits joined a long list of litigation. 

Overall, the county was hit with about seven lawsuits by inmates from different molestation ring cases of the period, Nations said. 

"They're just a pain in the butt," Nations said. "Every time we think we've seen the last one, up pops another one. I honestly don't know what's out there -- if there's even more." 

The suit over the case against Scott and Brenda Kniffen, who were freed in 1996 over improper questioning techniques of child witnesses, ended in a $275,000 settlement. Cases by other freed defendants settled for $10,000 to $40,000 each, Nations said. He said some cases were dismissed, and the county won one case at trial. 

Some two dozen convictions and often-stiff sentences have been overturned on appeal in the years since the trials. Of the more than 40 defendants accused in eight of the most high-profile cases, only a small handful got convictions that held up over time. Two inmates remain in prison. 

The reversals were for a variety of reasons, from a finding of prosecutorial misconduct to more technical flaws, such as a judge's failure to give proper jury instructions. 

District Attorney Edward Jagels offered no opinion about whether the freed inmates were guilty, saying only that his office made tactical decisions in many cases against retrying defendants. 

"It does no good 15 or 20 years later to express one's opinion with regard to guilt," Jagels said. "The cases were reversed, and based on their age and some changes in (witness) testimony, they clearly were not prosecutable at this late date." 

There were no findings that the errors were deliberate, Jagels said. 

With some ring cases, Nations said he doesn't know whether the molestation actually happened. Many children have recanted under apparent pressure from their families, Nations said. 

"The truth is very elusive in these things," Nations said. 

Oil field roustabout 

Burton enjoys displaying hard-nosed bravado, jokingly challenging much younger acquaintances to fistfights. Full of bluster and earthy humor, he is quick to laugh and tell jokes and stories about prison terms and women. 

"All these old corny jokes, they come in handy sometimes," Burton said. 

The "oil field roustabout" is equally at home in law libraries and at rodeos, said Snedeker, who worked with Burton on the Modahl case. 

"I like his style," Snedeker said. "It's slightly theatrical, but very real. He's got an extraordinary zest for life for somebody his age." 

But Burton lowers his "game face" a bit with people he knows well, revealing more intimate thoughts about such things as personal relationships, Snedeker said. 

Burton's grandparents brought him and his brother to California from Missouri when he was 8, and the four worked a farm north of McFarland. He moved to Bakersfield at 14 and went to Kern County Union High School. 

Burton said his life has included a string of failed marriages, as many as "five or six times." He said he has been in more fistfights than he can count. 

As a younger man, Burton said he was imprisoned in 1959 on a Ventura County case over lewd conduct with a girl, a crime he said he did not commit. He said he served his sentence then was locked up again improperly on a violation of his parole, Burton said. 

Burton started studying law. His mother sent him a typewriter. Burton filed the challenge, won himself a hearing and then brought attorney Roger Randall into the case. The challenge brought his release in 1974 after five years behind bars, Burton said. 

"The quality of his research appeared to be excellent," said Randall, now a Kern County Superior Court judge. 

Burton was intrigued by the legal process and helped other inmates with their cases. 

"If you just keep digging, you get 'em," Burton said. 

He retired from a job as an apartment manager in the Los Angeles area nearly 20 years ago, and in 1990 moved back to Bakersfield. 

Today, Burton is digging into a new cause -- an effort to free another man imprisoned on another molestation ring case from that period. 

John Andrew Stoll, who is serving a 40-year sentence, is one of two people from the eight major cases still in prison. His case got a boost from the unrelated Modahl lawsuit. Modahl's attorneys have taken recantations of three of Stoll's now-adult accusers, to show a pattern of improper investigations about the cases in general. 

Using the statements, Burton is drafting an appeal for Stoll. 

But this is the last one, Burton said. Then he's retiring from the amateur lawyer business. 

Or at least that's the plan. But Burton knows how easy it will be for him to get drawn into yet another case. 

"You won't never retire, because somebody will come along and have a problem," Burton said. 

 Copyright © 2001, The Bakersfield Californian 

Film chronicles couple's arduous legal dealings

By FRED LUDWIG, Californian staff writer 
e-mail:  fludwig@bakersfield.com
Saturday October 20, 2001, 09:30:12 PM 

One of the overturned Kern County molestation ring cases of the 1980s resurfaced last month in the form of a made-for-TV movie. The film on the Lifetime channel was based on the legal ordeal of Scott and Brenda Kniffen, who were released on appeal after more than 10 years in prison. 

"Just Ask My Children" was dedicated to Scott Kniffen's parents, who died several years before the couple's release, Scott Kniffen said. "When we saw the movie and it showed the death of my parents, it was pretty emotional for us," Kniffen said. Kniffen would not comment on how much he was paid for his cooperation with the project, saying the contract requires that be confidential. 

Lifetime employees would not comment Friday on whether the movie may air again. The script was a condensed version of actual events, taking several interviewers and combining them into one person, said attorney Michael Snedeker, who represented the couple in their appeal. But Snedeker said the story generally followed the facts of the trial and the record outlined in the appeal, showing the tragedy of the couple's imprisonment and separation from their children. 

"It was very hard to watch," he said. The Kniffens were among four people given sentences ranging from 168 years to 214 years each for the molestation of four children, including the Kniffens' children and other defendants, between 1979 and 1982. The case started in 1982, the first of eight high-profile molestation ring cases in the mid-1980s. A Kern County judge overturned the convictions in 1996 because improper questioning techniques made child witnesses unreliable. 

A lawsuit over the case ended in a $275,000 settlement with Kern County.A more harmless snafu recently had the Kniffens listed as the owners of a Kern home in foreclosure, catching the attention of some attorneys who recognized the name when it was published Oct. 1. But the Kniffens, who live in Nevada, sold that home 22 years ago, Scott Kniffen said. He said a mortgage company got the wrong name. 

Published on March 6, 1999, 
Press-Telegram (Long Beach, CA) 


Four black men who were imprisoned for a double murder for two decades until some journalism students proved their innocence won an unprecedented $36 million settlement from the county Friday. 

Attorneys called it the biggest settlement ever reached in a civil rights lawsuit stemming from police misconduct in the United States. 

The four men had sued Cook County, claiming the sheriff's officers who investigated the 1978 case were racists who hid evidence that would have helped the. . . 

Published on April 30, 1998, 
Press-Telegram (Long Beach, CA) 


A former state nurse who spent three years in prison for a rape he did not commit was awarded $3.9 million in damages Wednesday, and a judge rebuked the lead investigator in the case for abusing power. 

Mark Bravo, 38, of Whittier was cheered by his fellow law school students after hearing of his victory against the state in the federal civil rights suit. 

``I'm cleared. My name is cleared,'' he said. ``I wasn't sure I would ever see a decision this. . . 

Published on May 17, 2000, 
The Orange County Register 

McKinney files more claims

COURTS: The freed prisoner seeks damages from the district attorney and public defender.A man who spent more than 19 years in prison wrongly convicted of an Orange County murder is seeking damages from both the district attorney and public defender, his attorney said Tuesday. 

DeWayne McKinney, 39, was released from prison in January after prosecutors concluded he likely did not commit the 1980 murder for which he spent nearly two decades in prison. 

County officials received McKinney's claims against the public defender and district attorney on Tuesday. . . 

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