Wrongful conviction can happen to anyone
Three hundred thirty post-conviction DNA exonerations have occurred in the United States. Seventy percent of their convictions stemmed from eyewitness misidentification. It is the leading cause of wrongful conviction.
“My job has made me extremely aware that a wrongful conviction can happen to anyone,” says Bjerkhoel. “I realize now, after dealing with criminal law, how random crime is. So many people are at the wrong place at the wrong time. Not only victims of crimes, but the people that are wrongly convicted.” Bjerkhoel is riding shotgun in my car as we drive northbound on the 15 to visit Kimberly Long.
During our two-hour car ride there is barely a pause in conversation while she discusses her current and prior cases. Bjerkhoel was hired on as an attorney with the California Innocence Project in 2008 after interning for the program.
“I really lucked out. After I graduated law school, [the Innocence Project] got a grant to pay a lawyer. I think it was $40,000 a year. So, yeah, I became a $40,000-a-year lawyer.” Bjerkhoel says with a chuckle before adding, “I make more now, not by much. I make the starting salary of a public defender, and I have been out practicing for eight years.”
When we drive past Corona Lake, its shore drastically receded from the drought, Bjerkhoel motions out the window.
“One of my clients was convicted of a crime that occurred there.”
In 1998, the body of a Terry Cheek was found near the bank of Corona Lake. She was strangled to death. After three jury trials, Horace Roberts was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life for Cheek’s death. So far, Roberts has served 17 years of his sentence.
“He was having an affair with the victim,” Bjerkhoel explains, “he was convicted of the crime largely based upon a wristwatch found at the scene near her body.”
The prosecution stated during closing arguments in Roberts’s case, “What is more compelling than [Horace Roberts’s] watch that’s found next to the murdered woman’s body? There’s nothing more compelling than that.”
Fifteen years later, the California Innocence Project DNA-tested the watch. DNA evidence showed the watch belonged to one of Cheek’s family members — a person who had motive to kill her.
“It wasn’t even his watch!” Bjerkhoel says in hopeless exasperation. Her voice rises and drops ranging in sadness to frustration as she continues ranting on Roberts’s behalf.
Not long after driving past the location of Terry Cheek’s murder we see Tom’s Farm. The tourist attraction visible from the highway was one of the locations Kimberly Long, Oswaldo Conde, and Jeff Dills drank at on October 4th, prior to Conde’s murder. Upon noticing the establishment, Bjerkhoel lets out a heavy sigh and breathlessly explains, “I need some serious help on Kimberly’s case. There are so many possible suspects and bizarre facets to her case. I am chasing down leads all the time that don’t pan out. We have a cigarette butt that was found at the scene in an incense tray. The victim didn’t smoke it and our girl didn’t smoke it. DNA on it came back as unknown Hispanic male. Whose could it be? Conde’s ex-girlfriend happens to have these Hispanic male best friends who are scary as shit and [Conde] had a restraining order against her at the time of his death.”
It sounds like a movie. Adding another element of a Hollywood script, Bjerkhoel explains that Conde’s ex-girlfriend has a blog dedicated to Conde’s murder. Over 17,000 comments are posted on the website, some from the family and friends of both the victim and the accused, others from complete strangers.
“I read through all the comments trying to get information. One guy posted a comment saying that the murder was an NLR (Nazi Low Rider) hit, claiming [Conde] owed them money. Another person says the murder weapon is buried in a nearby Indian graveyard. We thought about going there; but where do we even start? Which end of the graveyard? I have no idea. I need a serious team of, like, 20 investigators to figure this all out. I believe someone out there knows what happened and might be willing to talk.”
Kimberly Long’s first trial resulted in a hung jury. Nine of the twelve jurors believed she was innocent. A second jury convicted Long of Conde’s murder based on a time discrepancy and the fact that hours before his murder, Conde and Long had gotten into a heated argument. Long was intoxicated during the altercation. She stormed out of the house, leaving with Jeff Dills.
When questioned by police, Long told officers she returned home at 2:00 a.m. and called police immediately upon discovering the body. Jeff Dills, on the other hand, claimed he dropped Long off at 1:30 a.m. Dills could not be questioned further on the time line. Shortly after talking to law enforcement, he died in a motorcycle accident. If Long returned home when Dill said she did, jurors believed she could have performed the murder and discarded her clothing prior to the arrival of investigators. Yet, when officers entered the home, blood dripped off of the living room walls in a 360-degree radius. Not a single drop of blood was found on Long. A check of all the faucets inside and outside the home were dry, indicated that a clean-up did not occur. Also, Long’s clothing when police arrived matched descriptions of what she was wearing earlier in the evening while bar-hopping.
“The prosecution’s theory was that Kim killed [Conde] because he wasn’t paying rent. From a female prospective, I am not going to kill a guy after six months simply because he is not paying the rent. That doesn’t even make any sense!” Bjerkhoel says in disgust, her voice thick with emotion.
Bjerkhoel explains that she tries her best not to get worked up over her cases but it is evident she can’t help it. The mere mention of Courtney, one of the first of Bjerkhoel’s clients to be exonerated, brings tears to her eyes. It is not that Bjerkhoel is weak or overly sentimental, it’s the awareness that her clients’ freedom hinges largely on her ability to prove their innocence. This fact has become a burden in Bjerkhoel’s life.