Bell Seeks Liberty 

Court to decide if Richmond man got a wrongful death sentence; and Oakland vigilante's neighbor loses her bid for a restraining order.

No one on death row is innocent, but some might not be guilty. Next week Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Thomas Maddock will hold an evidentiary hearing to help the state Supreme Court determine if vengeful eyewitnesses -- one of whom has since recanted her story -- wrongly sent former Richmond thug Ronald Lee Bell to death row 26 years ago.

Bell's saga began on February 2, 1978. On that day, a man shot and killed the manager of Wolff's Jewelry Store in Richmond during a holdup. Thirteen-year-old Dorothy Dorton and her fourteen-year-old aunt, Ruby Judge saw it happen. The teens were there to pick up a watch for another aunt of Dorton's, Ernestine Jackson, who was waiting in a parked car outside the store. The three became the prosecution's star witnesses; their testimony against Bell was crucial, since the killer left no fingerprints.

Bell's lawyers insisted that Ronald's brother Larry was the real killer, arguing that Larry was only two years younger and bore a strong resemblance to his older sibling. The defense, however, never called Larry Bell to testify so the jury could compare the brothers. Still, there was circumstantial evidence pointing in Larry's direction. One week after the killing at Wolff's, police collared him for an unrelated crime and found a ring from the jewelry store in his possession. A ladyfriend offered an alibi for Larry: The two had spent the afternoon and evening together, she claimed, shooting cocaine at the lovely Sea Horse Motel, which rents rooms by the hour.

The case was hardly a slam-dunk for the prosecution. The jury deadlocked during Bell's first trial, and nearly did so a second time, but ultimately rendered a guilty verdict and a death sentence -- the county's first since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. When Bell arrived at San Quentin in 1979, there were only thirty other guys on death row. Now there are 640. His lawyers say his mental health has deteriorated from all those years on the row: Bell has accused prison guards of sexually assaulting him through telekinesis.

A decade after the trial, the post-Rose Bird California Supreme Court upheld the Bell verdict, although Justice Stanley Mosk issued a blistering dissent in which he blamed prosecutorial misconduct for tipping the case against the accused. Bell's prosecutor was Gary Yancey, who went on to become Contra Costa's elected district attorney. Yancey suggested to the jury that Bell's own lawyer believed he was guilty. He also snuck in inadmissible hearsay from a secret informant who claimed to have seen Bell cleaning a handgun before the crime. And his novel response to the defense's suggestion that Larry Bell's cocaine use may have driven him to commit such a senseless and violent act? "Cocaine is a downer," he told the jury. "You don't go out and shoot people on cocaine. You make love; you're mellow." (The 1983 remake of Scarface thankfully put an end to this sort of prosecutorial nonsense.)

The tale might have ended there had it not been for Ernestine Jackson's purportedly loose lips. In the years after the Supreme Court ruling, three different people told Bell's lawyers that Jackson had bragged about putting Ronald on death row even though she knew he was innocent. One woman signed a sworn declaration saying she'd bumped into Jackson at a minimart in May 1991 when Bell's father drove by in his pickup truck. "You know what I did to his son?" Jackson allegedly told the acquaintance. "I got that nigger the death penalty. ... I even got my people to change their story to say they saw Ronnie instead of Larry because I was gonna get him." Jackson knew the Bell brothers well -- they went to high school together. She held a grudge against Ronald, his lawyers say, because nine years earlier he had killed Alcus Dorton, her niece's father, and was convicted only of manslaughter.

The biggest bombshell came four years ago, when a now-adult Dorothy Dorton recanted her trial testimony against Bell. She contacted Bell's defense team and signed a sworn statement that said her aunt told her to lie in court to exact revenge. "Over the years, it has weighed on my conscience that Ronnie Bell is on death row because of our lies," her statement read. "I no longer want him to die."

Of course, nothing is ever Perry Mason-easy in a death penalty case. Dorton has since denied recanting her testimony, although even the attorney general's office concedes it's quite possible she signed the statement in which she did so. (The AG on the case claims the statement itself is false.) Ernestine Jackson insists her own testimony was true and denies she ever bragged about putting an innocent man on death row. Ruby Judge, meanwhile, has always stuck to her original story. In short, Bell is an underdog to have his conviction overturned.

As for Larry Bell, he is in prison now, too. In 1979, he was sentenced to seventeen years to life for second-degree murder after killing an acquaintance with a gunshot to the chest. He is due for a parole hearing later this year. A downer, indeed.

Neighbors and Hoods

Stacy Hegler, a neighbor of North Oakland vigilante Patrick McCullough, has decided to drop her restraining order petition against him, her attorney says. Just a few weeks ago, McCullough won a restraining order against Hegler and her sixteen-year-old son Melvin, whom McCullough had shot in the arm in what the shooter calls an act of self-defense. Three days after McCullough got his protective order, Hegler retaliated and filed to get one against him. "My son Melvin is constantly hearing gun sounds, having nightmares, and thinks that Patrick McCullough is in his window or at the door getting ready to shoot him again," Hegler's petition alleged. "He cries in the middle of the night and keeps asking me if we are going to move soon."

Hegler's attorney, Dan Horowitz, says Judge Leo Dorado didn't think a onetime event, even if it was a cap in the arm, amounted to ongoing harassment. At the April 1 hearing, the judge gave Horowitz a couple of weeks to file a brief to persuade him otherwise, but Horowitz says Hegler will just drop the issue. She isn't abandoning her plan to sue McCullough for cash money, however. Horowitz says he has sent a demand letter to McCullough's homeowners' insurance carrier seeking the maximum amount under his policy's liability coverage. Horowitz says the shooter should apologize to his client. That seems highly unlikely, but if he did, would Hegler forget about suing him? "No," Horowitz says, "because the kid was injured."

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