Bakersfield, Calif. - Tim Atkins had already spent 10 years in prison before he started writing letters, asking for help to prove he did not commit the crime that landed him in prison for 32 years to life.
Wendy Koen was an intern with the California Innocence Project in 2004. Her tenacity helped track down the prosecution's star witness, and get the truth.
"To me, I mean, she's an angel. She's a good person. Wendy believes in justice, through and through," Atkins says of Wendy Koen, the woman who proved his innocence and got him out of prison. In 2004, she was 40 years old, in her second year of law school, interning with the California Innocence Project. Once she took on his case, she refused to give up.
Koen says her first meeting with Atkins father provided all the motivation she needed to find the witness who could set Tim Atkins free. That witness was Denise Powell.
Soon after the New Year's Day 1985 murder, Powell was in police custody, and they wanted a name to tie to the homicide. The only compelling evidence to link Atkins to the crime was Powell's claim that he bragged about the murder. But Powell never testified at Atkins' trial.
Atkins said the prosecution couldn't find Denise Powell. "There's a law called due diligence, meaning that if the prosecutor turned over every stone then the judge would allow them to read the preliminary hearing transcripts," Atkins explained.
And with Powell unavailable, Atkins' attorney never got to cross-examine her; the jury never got to hear any evidence that her statement was coerced.
Koen tracked Powell across L.A.'s crack dens and skid rows, chasing every sighting and rumor, putting herself in danger to find the one key that could unlock the prison doors. Finally, she got what she was looking for.
"She was arrested and she was in a rehab program. I had her in one spot for as long as she would stay in that rehab and not run," Koen says of Powell.
Finally, Koen sat Denise Powell in front of a camera to tell how she was pressured to give police a name... and why she named Tim Atkins.
"They told me I'm not leaving there until i told them something. I knew nothing-- what could I tell them? They scared me. So I lied, and I pointed Tim out. I lied," Powell admitted on camera.
With that evidence, Atkins was granted a hearing, and Powell finally testified in court.
"When they finally said you win and he's coming home....and he walked out a free man... the weight of the wrong that was done to him was lifted, and it was just pure joy," Koen said.
The same judge who presided over Atkins initial trial is the same one who determined that Powell's interrogation amounted to police misconduct, and no reasonable jury would have convicted him knowing that.
Today, Tim Atkins is free, but his story is not over. Thursday, February 9th is the tenth anniversary of his release from prison, and the third and final part of Atkins fight against the system.
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