I talked yesterday with two men.
One was fresh out of San Quentin, pardoned after nine months for a crime he didn’t commit.
The second was a witness to the crime. His positive identification of the suspect helped in obtaining a conviction.
The charge–robbery and assault with intent to commit murder. For it,
the suspect was given the maximum sentence–five years to life.
The cleared man’s name is Edward Avila.
He told me yesterday that he never lost faith that someday he would be found innocent.
"Of course, I had that feeling before I was convicted," he said. "After
all, if you haven’t committed a crime, you just don’t expect to take
the rap for it.
"The whole thing was kind of like a"–he hesitated before adding the final word–"joke."
At his trial, Avila had witnesses to prove that he couldn’t have been
in the area where the crime was committed at the time it happened.
Unfortunately, they were members of his family.
Their testimony was thrown out as "prejudice."
It dropped a bomb into Avila’s defense, but it’s the way our courts have to work sometimes.
If the word of suspects’ mothers and sisters and kin are believed in
every criminal case, an awful lot of guilty men would be walking our
The second man I talked to yesterday was only one of [illegible]
prosecution witnesses. But his identification of Avila as the sought
gunman played a major role in conviction.
His name isn’t important, but some of his statements are.
I asked him how positive he had been when he first identified Avila.
"I told them, ‘It’s either that man or he’s got a twin brother.’ "
"Did you say that in court?" I asked.
"No," he answered. "In court you have to be positive."
After a pause, he answered.
"Yes, I was."
The witness, possibly, had good reason to feel he was positive. Delbert
Wilson, who later confessed the crime, is within an inch and a few
pounds of Avila. Both have dark, curly hair, green eyes and slightly
pocked complexions. Their facial features are not dissimilar. Each has
a tiny, dark dot on his right cheek.
I asked the witness if he planned to talk to Avila.
"If I see him, I’ll talk to him," he said.
"You don’t plan to go see him, though?"
He paused. Then he answered, "No."
And after another moment, "I don’t think I should. After all, it was an honest mistake."
"Is it true that you correctly identified the real gunman last week?"
The witness sighed.
"Yes," he said. "I picked him out of a police lineup. Avila was in it too."
"But this time you’re really positive?"
"Yes. The eyes. Something about the eyes."
"Did you find it tough to admit that you’d made a mistake?"
He hesitated. Then he shrugged.
"Both times," he said, "I tried to do what I thought was right."
Avila’s conviction was a freak mishap of justice.
His pardon, however, wasn’t.
His freedom resulted from some clever detective work by Sheriff’s
Officers F.D. Villines and A.W. Bright. They’re men, obviously, who
know that their jobs of law enforcement don’t end necessarily with
Still, it took them a couple of lucky breaks and several months to free the imprisoned man.
Maybe I shouldn’t ask this, but–
What if the victim of the shooting had died?
And what if Avila had been sentenced to death and executed before
Villines and Bright had a chance to probe deep enough to uncover any
substantial new leads?
Neither are questions I’d like to ask Edward Avila’s wife or his two children.