Seeking to Free an Innocent Man

(Editor’s note: In October 1995, Curtis Love, 28, was sentenced to 25 years to life for his alleged involvement in a $5 crime. Pacific Palisades private investigator Greg Frost has been working on his release from prison since 2006.)

By Greg Frost
Special to the Palisades News

I was contacted by Curtis Love, a friend of a client, who wanted to hire me to conduct an investigation on his behalf in 2006. After getting approval from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, I made the long dusty drive out to Ironwood Prison, near Blythe, where I met with Love.

He told me he had been sentenced to 25 years to life for aiding and abetting in the theft of $5 on September 27, 1994.

Love, a black man, said he was hanging out at the parking lot in front of Eddie’s liquor in Long Beach. Throughout the day, the victim “Hal” visited the liquor store to purchase cigarettes and beer for a party he was having at his home. The actual perpetrator, “Sam,” was also present.

Several days earlier, Hal had asked Sam to help him move a refrigerator, in exchange for $5. Afterwards, Hal told Sam he needed to collect the $5 from the actual owner of the refrigerator before he paid him.

Curtis Love served 23 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

On that day in 1994, when Hal visited the store, Sam came to him and asked for his $5. Hal refused to pay it, saying he didn’t have it. On his second trip, at about 1 p.m., Sam followed Hal inside the store and watched him purchase $13 worth of goods with a $20 bill. Both left the store and Sam demanded that the victim give him $5.

Once again Hal refused, and purportedly Sam swung at the victim’s head with a stick. Hal pulled out a screwdriver he had in his back pocket and told Sam to back up. Sam threatened to beat the victim up.

And Love? He was standing in the parking lot watching, as were other people. Eventually, Sam backed off and Hal left.

Hal returned a few hours later and was once again confronted by Sam, but this time Hal flagged down a passing police car and reported what had happened.

Later Hal learned that the police had arrested Love along with Sam for felony attempted robbery. Hal told the police that Love was not involved, but the police claimed that he had fingered Love and if he did not stick to that story, he would be arrested and charged with a felony of filing a false police report.

Hal tried to explain to the district attorney that Love had nothing to do with the situation, but the DA said there was nothing they could do, and the victim had to testify against Love.

When Love came to trial, Hal later said that he tried to say he was not involved, but the DA mixed his words around, confusing him.

The DA then had the police testify as to what they claimed Hal told them. Love was convicted of aiding and abetting in the theft of $5. But because this was at the beginning of the Three Strikes Law, this conviction counted as Mr. Love’s third strike. The judge said he had no choice but to sentence Love to 25 years to life. He was offered a deal of 12 years, but he refused to take it, because he said he was an innocent man.

Before meeting with me, Love had tried to prove his innocence by filing writs and hiring attorneys (many of whom were unscrupulous. With one attorney, Love filed a complaint with the State Bar and received most of his money back).

After meeting him, I decided to take the case, but since we had to prove actual innocence to free him, it was necessary to find new evidence to prove it. This was not going to be easy since Sam and Hal had already tried to testify that Love was not involved.

Initially, Love’s family was able to pay my fees and did so on and off, as I followed the various leads. The more I investigated, the more I became convinced of my client’s innocence.

As a result, in 2008, when Love’s mother stated she could no longer pay my fees, I agreed to do this pro bono. I normally do not take these cases, but could not live with myself knowing an innocent man was in prison with a life sentence.

A year later, I located Hal, who explained his confusing trial testimony. I also helped establish that this was not actually a crime, but a business dispute gone bad.

Meanwhile, I continued to work on this case and tried to find additional new evidence, locating possible witnesses.

Love decided to file a writ of habeas corpus with the State of California on his own, based on the new evidence I found. He was barried because of the prior successive appeals he had already filed. Each time, he filed it with the next higher court, taking it to the Federal Court of Appeals. When that was denied, he filed a writ of certiorari, which too was denied.

California law changed in early 2017, and now a prisoner only had to prove a preponderance of the evidence to get a court to hear his case. Love wrote to the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent (in downtown L.A.), who reviewed the case and also thought it a miscarriage of justice.

In June 2017, after nearly 23 years in prison, Love got notice of his Parole Suitability Hearing in San Luis Obispo.

I contacted the Bureau of Parole Hearings and informed them that Hal wanted to testify. I also spoke to Adam Grant, project director at the Project for the Innocent, and Macauley Aston-Nielsen, the student working on the case. They also wanted to appear and express their belief that Love was an innocent man.

I drove Hal to the hearing, where we met up with Grant and Aston-Nielsen. During the hearing, Love spoke and answered the parole board’s questions. He took responsibility for his actions prior to the subject incident, but steadfastly maintained his innocence.

He testified as to how he turned himself around in prison and got his GED, and graduated from college with a business degree. He testified how he had been clean and sober for 22 years in prison, not an easy feat in an environment where drugs and alcohol are readily available.

Hal testified that Love had nothing to do with the incident that day in 1994. He said he had been trying to get someone to listen to him about Love’s innocence for 23 years. He surmised that Love was a victim of overzealous police trying to clean up an area that was known for crime and gang activity.

I then testified to my knowledge of this case and how I believed Love was innocent. I told them of my regular phone calls with my client and I mentioned how proud he was when he told me he graduated from college.

Grant testified that the Project for the Innocent also believed Love was innocent.

The parole board recommended parole at his earliest possible release date and stated that they were not only impressed by Love, but also by Hal and the fact he continued to fight for Love’s innocence for so many years. They put on the record that they believed Love might actually be an innocent man.

Love’s release from prison was scheduled for September 2018, but because of his good record while in prison, it has been bumped up to March 2018.

A court must first overturn the initial declaration of guilty and proclaim Love’s innocence. Until then, even though he will make parole, he is guilty in the eyes of the court and will have to report to a parole officer for the rest of his life.

Project for the Innocent attorneys stated they would continue to work to prove Mr. Love’s innocence, and ultimate exoneration. I, too, will continue doing whatever I can to meet that same goal, because Love is an innocent man who has been in prison for nearly 23 years for a crime he did not commit.

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