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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.

Photos of successful exonerations line the hallways of the California Innocence Project office.

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.

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Comments

jnojr Aug. 19, 2015 @ 12:50 p.m.

"The California Institution for Women in Chino is dusty and dilapidated. It looks like an abandoned high school outfitted with razor-wire-topped fencing and look-out towers with armed guards."

It's a prison, not a spa or resort.

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sryan921 Aug. 25, 2015 @ 8:24 a.m.

I think it's obvious she was trying to give us a visual of what she saw, not complain that it wasn't nice enough.

1

jnojr Aug. 19, 2015 @ 12:55 p.m.

“California has a stereotype of being this hippie-granola-crunchy place. It’s really not. We have the largest death row in the United States with 743 death-row inmates. We have the most severe sentencing structure with three strikes. It’s the belly of the beast,”

California has, by far, the biggest population in the nation. Over 10% of the nation's population lives here. 700-someodd death row denizens is nothing, and there are so many because we won't execute their sentences!

As for "the most severe sentencing structure", BS! Our dauntless state Legislators and weepy, hand-wringing voters are constantly reducing the effectiveness of our penal system. We DON'T have a real Three Strikes system any more... we let all sorts of violent predators go all the time because what they were caught for this time wasn't quite bad enough.

I'm tired of this silly, bleating nonsense about how we're just too rough on criminals. We aren't. We aren't nearly tough enough. repeat felons should be in prison for life. They should be making license plates or doing other hard labor. Instead, we weep over them, and try to "understand" them, and "show compassion", and cry about their poor childhoods, and give them endless second chances. It's no wonder why there are so many criminals... crime pays in this state!

1

Pidge Aug. 19, 2015 @ 4:35 p.m.

@jnojr: Indeed. However, there is no excuse for the abuse of law that puts innocent people in prison, nor executing them. Ambrose Bierce said "The law is where you go in as a pig and come out as a sausage."

Just pray that it never happens to you, my friend. And no matter how law-abiding you are, it COULD happen to you, or your wife/husband, daughter/son, mother/father, etc.

Having worked in the court system for 32 years, I have seen things that would make you weep. Pray you're never invited as a defendant - unless you have actually done the deed.

2

Sjtorres Aug. 20, 2015 @ 11:53 a.m.

Meanwhile the UC and CSU Boards pass a "law" saying that those accused of sexual assault are, in fact, guilty until proven innocent.

0

ProtectTheInnocent March 18, 2016 @ 12:42 p.m.

Kimberly doesn't belong in prison. I have no idea what that second jury was thinking, or I should say not thinking. And even before that, they were insane to even bring charges against her in the first place! There was NO blood on her or her clothes, and yes she was found still dressed in the clothes witnesses had seen her dressed in when she'd been out earlier. When Kimberly had been given a polygraph test, she needed a +6 to pass, and she got a plus 12 or 16 something like that. She was SO far from being deceptive ! She had told the truth! Unfortunately, there had been someone in Ozzy's life who didn't make out so well on their polygraph test. That person was Ozzy's ex-girlfriend. The same woman Ozzy found himself having to take a restraining order out against ! When the ex-girlfriend was questioned by police, she even went as far as to say she hated Ozzy being with Kimberly. She hated Kimberly. She was extreme! And the circle she hung in were less then desirable also. She admitted to being angry over the fact that Ozzy wanted to marry Kimberly. There were more reasons to look at this woman as a suspect for Ozzy's murder than to ever look at or suspect Kimberly. Even if there had been a discrepancy in the time of what time Kimberly got home, she said about 2:00 a.m. and Jeff Dills said 1:30 a.m. The coroner's report places Ozzy's time of death at 12:30 a.m. ! Ozzy had been attacked and killed long before Kimberly ever got home no matter which time you go by. They NEED to go back and look at that insane ex-girlfriend all over again, who didn't even pass her polygraph test. And her circle of undesirable cohorts. Justice has not been served in Ozzy's death, the real murderer is not sitting behind bars, and too many senseless years of freedom have already been taken from an innocent woman!

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