By MAKENA PRATT, correspondent
A small group of dedicated attorneys at the Los Angeles Innocence Project, and a quiet older Black man who lives in the South Bay, are rejoicing over the profound meaning of freedom after Maurice Hastings, 69, heard a judge say that he was factually innocent of a murder that kept him behind bars for 38 years.
Ayesha Hussain, a staff attorney for the Los Angeles Innocence Project housed on the campus of Cal State LA, has been working on Hastings’ wrongful conviction case since she was a law student. She said the emotions in court on March 1, were “overwhelming and humbling.”
“Mr. Hastings’ case has been at the forefront of our work for so long. It’s really overwhelming that this case is finally done,” Hussain said Thursday.
Looking back over those years, she said, “The biggest advocate for Mr. Hastings has always been himself. It’s very humbling to see how someone has maintained hope for so long and never stopped fighting for their innocence.”
Los Angeles Innocence Project Director Staff Attorney Ayesha Hussain at the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center on the campus of Cal State LA Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
After spending much of his life imprisoned for the murder he did not commit, he was pronounced factually innocent on Wednesday — thus clearing the arrest and prosecution from his record.
Hastings was convicted of the 1983 abduction, sexual assault, and murder of Roberta Wydermyer and spent decades attempting to appeal his conviction.
It was not until Hastings came into contact with the Los Angeles Innocence Project team that he found true hope.
Due to their intense focus on his case, Hastings was exonerated for the murder in October of 2022. But he also sought — and this week won from a judge — a courtroom decision that he is factually innocent which means his arrest and prosecution will be cleared from his record.
How did the Los Angeles Innocence Project’s legal team, led by director Paula Mitchell, do it?
Los Angeles Innocence Project Director Paula Mitchell at the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center on the campus of Cal State LA Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
During years of back and forth legal battles and litigation, they obtained and independently tested a semen sample from the body of murder victim Wydermyer — DNA material that had gone untested for the 38 years in which Hastings was incarcerated.
The DNA test results distinctively excluded Hastings as a “contributor” — but the DNA did match somebody else, Kenneth Packnett, who died in prison while serving a sentence for similar violent crimes.
That DNA test led to Hastings’ joyful exoneration in court last fall and the finding of factual innocence in a court this week.
“Back in 1988 when the jury came back with a guilty verdict, the crowd cheered and they were applauding it was a really sad moment for Maurice because he really felt like the whole world was against him,” Hussain said.
“An entire crowd of people cheering and applauding that he was found guilty — and then contrast that with yesterday, where he was announced innocent. Paula (Mitchell) asked the judge ‘Can we applaud’?”
Los Angeles Innocence Project Director Staff Attorney Eliza Haney at the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center on the campus of Cal State LA Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Los Angeles Innocence Project staff attorney Eliza Haney believes Hastings’ wrongful conviction is a prime example of how the American legal system is faulty and needs to change.
“We cannot have confidence in a legal system that allows innocent people to sit in prison for 40 years,” Haney said. “This is undeniable proof that innocent people get caught up in this system, that this system is flawed, and that it requires change and accountability.”
To that end, Haney says, “We are thrilled for Mr. Hastings’ exoneration, but we don’t rest. The work is not done. We have plenty more people who write to us every year who express the same insistence — that they are innocent — and require years of investigation, tons of resources, and litigation to make the same showing, that they are also innocent.”
During the March 1 court hearing, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office issued Hastings an apology for its role in his wrongful conviction and decades behind bars.
“I’m grateful for the judge’s ruling, I’m grateful for the district attorney’s office for agreeing with it, I’m grateful for the apologies,” Hastings said following the court hearing. “I’m ready to move forward with my life. I’m a happy man right now.”