Tuesday, January 19, 2016- Today, the City of Los Angeles approved a $16.7 million settlement to compensate Kash Delano Register for the 34 years he spent wrongly imprisoned for the 1979 robbery and murder of 79-year-old Jack Sasson. This is believed to be the largest individual civil rights settlement ever in Los Angeles, according to his attorneys at the law firm Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, LLP.
Kash Register was exonerated through the work of the Loyola Law School, Los Angeles Project for the Innocent in 2013. Mr. Register was 18 years old when he was arrested and 53 when he was released. His 34 years behind bars is one of the longest sentences served by a wrongfully convicted defendant, and is more than 2.5 times the 13-year average of such cases.
“The City of Los Angeles really stepped up and did the right thing here,” said Nick Brustin, a partner with the law firm Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, LLP, and lead counsel for Mr. Register in his civil suit. “They recognized that Kash was the victim of a horrible injustice, and that if a jury saw the evidence of misconduct that led to his wrongful conviction, the award could easily have been several times greater. I know Kash is very thankful that he does not have to go through a trial or appeals.”
Mr. Register, who is African American, was initially convicted by an all-white jury in 1979 based on the testimony of two eyewitnesses. The sister of one of these witnesses, Sheila Vanderkam, was working as a civilian employee of the LAPD at the time. She told lead LAPD detective Richard Zolkowski that she knew her sister was lying, and had not even witnessed the crime. Det. Zolkowski told Ms. Vanderkam to keep quiet. Fearful of losing her job, she complied. Years later, she happened to remember Mr. Register’s unusual name and looked him up online. She was shocked to find he had been convicted and was still imprisoned for this murder she knew he had not committed. Ms. Vanderkam reached out to his lawyers to help free him.
After the court-appointed Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent signed on to represent Mr. Register, the Project developed additional evidence of problems with the identification procedures used in this case, as well as hidden evidence undermining the conviction. Among their findings was the fact that yet another witness had told the police at the time that Mr. Register was not the shooter, but her statement was buried.
After a hearing on this new evidence, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Katherine Mader threw out Mr. Register’s conviction in November 2013. In the course of the civil suit that followed, Neufeld Scheck & Brustin uncovered still more evidence of misconduct in the LAPD investigation, including that Mr. Register reported his truthful alibi to the LAPD immediately, but they never wrote it down. This allowed the trial prosecutors to argue that Mr. Register’s alibi was made up. Also, while prosecutors were deciding whether to seek the death penalty against Mr. Register, the LAPD Detectives hid the fact that Mr. Register was excluded as the source of any of the fingerprints at the crimes scene.
“I can’t get these 34 years back, but I hope my case can help make things better for others, through improving the way the police get identifications or other reforms,” said Mr. Register.
“We are hopeful that Los Angeles will build on this settlement by adopting reforms to their eyewitness identification procedures,” said Mr. Brustin. “This case should also be a lesson to Los Angeles and other cities to take a hard look at other cases where inmates proclaim their innocence, even where, as here, there was no remaining physical evidence to do testing like DNA.”
“I am just so grateful to everyone who helped to get me to this place, from Sheila Vanderkam, a woman I had never met, who came forward to help me because she knew I was innocent; to Keith Chandler, who wrote my habeas petition; to Laurie Levenson, Lara Bazelon, Adam Grant and everyone else at the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent, as well as Herbert Barish, who worked so tirelessly to get my conviction overturned; to my lawyers at Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, who fought for me in this civil case,” Mr. Register said. “After almost 37 years, I am more than ready to try to put this all behind me and move on with my life.”
“It has been an absolute privilege to represent a man like Kash, who showed such extraordinary courage and dignity during his nightmarish ordeal,” said Mr. Brustin. During his 34 years of imprisonment, Mr. Register came up for parole 11 times. Although he had an exemplary prison record, he was consistently denied parole—because he would not admit guilt and express remorse for a crime he did not commit. Mr. Register expressed his dilemma to the parole board, to no avail:
“I just want you to think about in your heart and mind what advice would you give to your son if he was convicted of a crime he didn’t do? Would you want him to allow himself to be bullied or pressure into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit, or maintain his innocence and be a man, despite being punished very harshly? What advice would you give him?”
Attorneys in the case are Barry Scheck, Nick Brustin, Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann and Farhang Heydari of Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, LLP, in New York, and Kevin LaHue of Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt, LLP, in Pasadena, CA.