In 1988, Herman Atkins was wrongfully convicted of robbery, rape, forcible oral copulation, and for using a handgun in the commission of these crimes. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison, and served 12 years of that sentence before he was exonerated.
On January 25, 1986, Atkins was at an auto shop paying his mechanic when a robber approached, snatched his money, and ran on foot. According to Atkins, the mechanic pulled out a gun, which Atkins grabbed before pursuing the robber. He fired the weapon in the air during the pursuit to scare the robber. As Atkins approached a corner, he spotted a police car and heard a number of gunshots. He decided to retreat and ditch the weapon out of fright. Police told a different version of events. They claimed Atkins wounded three people with a gun, including two officers. Atkins was on the run for 10 months before his arrest in November 1986.
While Atkins was on the run, another crime unrelated to him occurred in Lake Elsinore, California. On the morning of April 8, 1986, a female was raped and robbed at gunpoint while working at a shoe store. During the rape, the assailant ejaculated and wiped his semen onto her sweater. After the assailant escaped, the victim called the police and was taken to the hospital where vaginal swabs were collected. The police also collected her clothing, including the semen-stained sweater, as evidence.
At the police station, the victim saw a wanted poster for Atkins on charges for the January shooting incident. After seeing the poster, she identified Atkins as her assailant in a photo lineup. In addition, one of the witnesses was a woman who worked at the store next to where the rape occurred. Police showed the witness Atkins’ wanted poster and she falsely recalled that he had been in her store earlier that day.
While Atkins agreed to accept an eight-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon in relation to the January incident, he disputed the charges relating to the rape and robbery. At trial, Atkins defended himself by arguing mistaken eyewitness identification and claiming he had never been to Lake Elsinore. He presented an alibi witness and also testified on his own behalf.
In addition to the witness identifications, the prosecution relied on the testimony of a state crime laboratory serologist from the State of California’s Riverside Laboratory. The serologist testified that the semen collected from the vaginal swab was deposited by someone with blood type A and PGM 2+1+, and this was consistent with Atkins’ typing. He also testified that based on blood type and gene statistics, Atkins was included in a population of approximately 4.4% of people who could have committed the crime. The jury found Atkins guilty of robbery and rape, and he was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Atkins insisted on his innocence, but each of his appeals were denied. In 1993, his case was accepted by the Innocence Project – a legal clinic that assists wrongfully convicted individuals in regaining their freedom. The Innocence Project sought to prove Atkins’ innocence through the use of DNA testing, a new technology at the time.
The Innocence Project located the sweater and vaginal swabs in 1995, but the prosecution refused access to the evidence for DNA testing purposes. In 1999, the Innocence Project filed a motion to compel the prosecutor to send the evidence to a laboratory for DNA testing. The motion was granted and the evidence was analyzed by Forensic Science Associates. Testing conducted on three separate areas of the semen-stained sweater all showed that the semen was from someone other than Atkins. Atkins was freed from prison in February 2000 based on the DNA testing results, after serving 12 years of his sentence for a crime he did not commit.
Atkins filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Danny Miller, who was the lead investigator in the rape case. Atkins’ lawyers argued that Miller had fabricated evidence to strengthen the rationale for obtaining an arrest warrant for Atkins. Specifically, they accused Miller of concocting a witness statement on Atkins’ whereabouts around the time the rape occurred. On April 30, 2007, the jury in the civil suit decided in favour of Atkins and awarded him $2 million, payable by Riverside County.
After exoneration, Atkins completed an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Atkins was also an avid advocator for the wrongfully convicted. He provided testimony to persuade California state legislators to increase the compensation for the wrongfully convicted from a maximum of $10,000 to $100 for each day spent in prison. Atkins’ experiences motivated him to study law and work on behalf of the innocent. He took the Law School Admission Test three times, and his efforts paid off when he was accepted by the California Western School of Law in 2009.