Two men who served nearly 17 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of attempted murder after a 2004 shooting were declared innocent Thursday by a California judge.
Under a new law, the state is required to pay them each $140 for every day they spent behind bars, or about $900,000.
The verdicts for Dupree Glass and Juan Rayford concluded a new trial that began in October after a state appeals court panel vacated their convictions and they were freed in 2020. The proceedings included a dramatic confession by the actual shooter, Chad Brandon McZeal, a gang member who’s serving a life sentence for murder in an unrelated case, the defense team said.
After the judge ruled, Glass and Rayford embraced each other and their attorneys. Outside the courthouse, the men were cheered by family members and supporters. Rayford, clutching his baby daughter, called it an “amazing” feeling to have their records finally wiped clean and their reputations restored.
“I thought about this day for so long. I thought about it when I was locked up for 17 years. I thought about it for my last two years being free. I waited for this day because, you know, I knew I was innocent of every crime they said I committed,” he said.
Defence attorneys said the case was the first brought under a law that guarantees compensation for defendants who have their cases thrown out and also allows them to present evidence proving their innocence.
Glass and Rayford were 17 and 18, respectively, when they were arrested after a shooting during an altercation involving a group of teens in Lancaster, north of Los Angeles. Two people were struck by gunfire, but the injuries were not serious, according to court filings.
Both defendants were convicted of 11 counts of attempted murder and sentenced to 11 consecutive life sentences.
Dupree Glass, far left, and Juan Rayford, second right, during a hearing in Los Angeles on Thursday. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP
“That trial never should have been brought in the first place,” defence attorney Annee Della Donna told The Associated Press. “There was no evidence tying them to the shooting. Zero.”
The new statute, which took effect in 2020, gives the defence a chance to show that there’s a “preponderance of evidence” showing innocence, she said. “We proved their innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Della Donna said.
The convictions of Glass and Rayford relied heavily on the testimony of just two witnesses who later recanted their stories. During a five-year investigation, defence investigators found multiple other witnesses who said, “Oh no, they weren’t the shooters. They never had a gun,” Della Donna said.
The teens, who had no criminal history, maintained from the beginning that they were not involved in the shooting. Their case was taken up by the Innocence Rights project at the University of California, Irvine School of Law.
Glass, 36, and Rayford, 37, now both work as drivers for Walmart. Rayford is with his high school sweetheart, who waited for him while he was in prison. Both men are new fathers to baby girls.
“I’m not big for words. But today is a wonderful day. For 20 years we’ve been living this nightmare. It’s finally over. We can go on with our lives,” Glass said Thursday outside the courthouse.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge H. Clay Jacke’s decision was “a long, detailed ruling exonerating them for any and all crimes” related to the shooting, said defence attorney Eric Dubin.
“Today the judge righted a wrong,” Dubin said. “In my over 30 years of trying cases, I’ve never experienced such a magical moment where I’m able to see justice come to light so vividly.”
Dubin said he expects the state Victims Compensation Board to approve the nearly $900,000 in compensation due to each man under the new law. On top of that, defence attorneys plan on suing the state, county, and district attorney’s office for wrongful prosecution, he said.
The district attorney’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the judge’s decision.