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Joe Hunt to petition for compassionate release
In addition to health issues, Hunt’s petition points to numerous trial irregularities and new laws that call for reductions in the sentences of youth offenders
September 4, 2020
Joe Hunt is now 60 years old and is petitioning for a commutation from Governor Gavin Newsom. Arrested at age 24, Hunt is asking for a sentence reduction, citing numerous trial irregularities, his vulnerability to covid, compounded by a diagnosis of cardiomyopathy, and his exemplary prison record.
“It’s a tragic waste — both of taxpayer resources and of a life that could have been spent contributing to society,” said Joe’s brother-in-law Michael Olivier. “Look at all of the things Joe has accomplished while in prison and imagine what could have been.”
Those who have become familiar with the facts know that Hunt has spent his more than three decades of incarceration applying himself to good causes.
As a clerk in the prison law library, he has to date helped over 30 fellow inmates successfully obtain relief from unjust sentences or convictions. Using his financial know-how, Hunt raised over $1 million dollars for his church. And Hunt formed the first men’s support group in his prison. Two prison chaplains, three corrections officers, and his Correctional Counselor have contributed letters on his behalf, praising his conduct and supporting his release.
“In my opinion, Hunt has no inclinations to re-offend,” wrote Correctional Officer M. Saesee. “I would place him solidly in the top one percent as far as suitability for reintegration with society.” Chaplain William Goeke similarly praised Hunt, writing, “The other men look to him for direction and encouragement… his is a voice of healing and compassion.”
The letters from chaplains and prison officials are just a small sample of more than 500 submitted on Hunt’s behalf, all part of a campaign that also includes a staggering 26,000 signatures on a petition supporting Hunt’s release.
Olivier also points to many encouraging developments in California law in the years since Hunt was put behind bars. Based on a greater understanding of cognitive development in young adults, in 2014, California created a system of youth offender parole hearings for inmates whose crimes were committed before the age of 18. Then in 2018, the law was expanded, and the special parole hearings are now offered to inmates sentenced before age 26.
However, those recent changes in youth offender laws exclude inmates who were sentenced to life without parole — which includes Hunt.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Olivier said. “A young adult is a young adult, and if we recognize that sentences which failed to take brain development into account were flawed, then life without parole sentences must be doubly so.”
Though they have found the expansion of opportunities for youth offenders somewhat heartening, Hunt’s family knows they can’t just sit back and wait for the law to evolve — not with Joe’s heart condition, his advancing age, and the coronavirus pandemic. Federal officials also have recognized the increased urgency of compassionate release. U.S. Attorney General William Barr recently ordered officials running federal prisons to immediately maximize the release of prisoners to home confinement during the pandemic.
Hunt was convicted of murder in a case with no body and no physical evidence — only a man who disappeared while out on bail as he faced an FBI investigation for grand theft and fraud. And that questionable starting point led to even more troubling questions about the manner in which the trial was conducted, including an incompetent trial lawyer with a substantial conflict of interest, and a judge who harbored a documented personal conflict with a member of the defense team.
There are substantive reasons to believe that Hunt did not receive a fair trial, says attorney Gary K. Dubcoff. In a scathing 26-page letter supporting Hunt’s commutation, Dubcoff details at length many evidentiary, procedural, legal, and ethical flaws in Hunt’s trial.
The justice system simply did not work in Hunt’s case, Dubcoff says. “I have been practicing criminal trial and appellate work for over three decades, and I have rarely, if ever, seen such a concerted effort on the part of the judiciary to turn a blind eye to facts,” he wrote. Hunt was “convicted by a deplorable combination of judicial misconduct and incompetent, corrupt representation.”
One of the oddest aspects of Hunt’s conviction that points to an unreliable verdict revolves around alleged gunman James Pittman.
Hunt was not sentenced to life in prison for pulling the trigger himself, but because a jury was led to believe he had ordered Pittman to do so.
Yet Pittman’s jury, with additional evidence not discovered until after Hunt’s conviction, acquitted Pittman of the shooting, an outcome totally at odds with that of Hunt’s case.
“It’s baffling,” Olivier said. “How can you think a guy who we learned didn’t shoot anyone was also, somehow, simultaneously forced to shoot someone? Both of these things can’t be true.”
Hunt’s petition to Governor Newsom makes use of all of these arguments: flaws in his trial, the movement to save taxpayer dollars by granting compassionate release to prisoners with health problems, the threat of coronavirus behind bars, his spiritual rehabilitation, his record of nonviolence, his service to fellow inmates and his church, his age at sentencing, and his advancing age today.
“Being 60 years old with a heart condition means Joe is at the highest risk for covid, but the lowest risk for reoffending,” Olivier said. “Everyone in our church is praying that the governor takes notice of that and Joe’s 35 years of peaceful behavior and lets us bring him back home.”
Joe Hunt’s appellate attorney writes scathing report of injustice to Governor Newsom
Below is an abridged summary of a report that Joe Hunt’s appellate attorney, Gary Dubcoff, wrote this month (August 2020) to provide to Governor Newsom. The full 26-page report is here.
My name is Gary K. Dubcoff, and I represented Joe Hunt for years as his postconviction counsel in federal court. As a result of that work, I am intimately familiar with the record facts of his case, and just how badly our criminal justice system went awry. Indeed, I have been practicing criminal trial and appellate work for over three decades, and I have rarely, if ever, seen such a concerted effort on the part of the judiciary to turn a blind eye to those facts. I will set out below a summary of the most salient of these facts, and, although it may be difficult to believe many of them, I can state with surety that they are supported by the record citations that accompany them (any or all of which documents I would promptly submit upon request).
Mr. Hunt did not receive justice. “[E]xecutive clemency exists to provide relief from harshness or mistake in the judicial system ….” (Ohio Adult Parole Authority v. Woodard (1998) 523 U.S. 272, 284-285.) Having been informed that the Governor’s Office of Legal Affairs/Pardons takes seriously that precept and believes that the presence of trial irregularities should be considered in a commutation application, I thought it worthwhile to summarize them. This narrative is rather lengthy in order to make clear just how far short of dispensing justice our system operated in Mr. Hunt’s case.
The short of it is that his trial was presided over by a trial judge who, in between making leeringly misogynistic and homophobic comments and gestures because that was who he was, abandoned all pretense of impartiality, striving mightily at every turn to ensure his conviction, the facts be damned; and Mr. Hunt was represented by an incompetent attorney – in a capital case, this lawyer performed no pretrial investigation(!) – who sold him up the river for lucre and self-interest.
One unique fact bears highlight, because it establishes the damage done by the trial judge and Mr. Hunt’s lawyer in the first of his two murder trials.
In Mr. Hunt’s second trial, the prosecution’s strategy began with trying to convince the jury that he had in fact committed the first murder for which he had already been convicted. But that effort backfired spectacularly without the burden of a biased judge and corrupt lawyer.
Even though they were informed of his earlier conviction, the second-trial jurors were convinced that there had been no murder at all, and that the alleged victim was alive following his purported murder.
It is to the everlasting shame of the judicial system that, without legal cause, every reviewing court adamantly refused to take into consideration what those actual jurors stated under oath, acting as if that stark proof of the prejudicial impact of all that went wrong in Mr. Hunt’s first trial did not exist at all. It is, in no small measure, the reason that he remains incarcerated and must plead for executive grace – in my view, his conviction should long since have been overturned.
(To see the full report, click here.)
Joe Hunt cofounded the first men’s group in a California prison
I was a founding member of the first men’s group in a California prison. We held our meetings at B facility, California State Prison at Sacramento, also known as New Folsom. In attendance was Robert Albee, a free man and published poet with considerable experience in men’s groups on the street, and Pat Nolan a convict who had met Robert through correspondence.
The first meeting of the men’s group was held after we came off a particularly long lockdown in 1996, which was instituted after a particularly bloody and violent riot that occurred on the yard. Pat was hoping that men’s work, along the lines of what was taking place in circles of men which had formed in the outside world, could create bridges of familiarity, understanding, and respect Behind the Walls.
Men’s work is a particular process that gives one an opportunity to look at one’s emotional response to life. A man does work, with the aid of the circle, and typically one of the men facilitates. I was tasked with establishing a men’s group on C-Yard at New Folsom in 1998. Under the auspices of Deacon Dennis Moreno, our Catholic chaplain at New Folsom, I did so. In time the circle thrived and was still functioning 14 years later when I left New Folsom. For the first 10 years, I was the clerk in charge of the program and one of the main facilitators. Intensive 4-day trainings were held at C Facility every few months while I was clerking as a facilitating for the program. These trainings would typically involve 30 or 40 men from the outside world, and many came from other countries, joining us behind the walls for 12 to 14 hour sessions on four consecutive days. What took place in such meetings became a subject matter for the documentary, which was filmed after I left New Folsom.
Here is some information about a documentary made about this men’s group, from after my involvement with it ended:
Ron Levin: His Criminal History, Documented
The following FBI documents describe how Ron Levin (alias Ronald Rothchild, alias Ronald Levine, alias Sam Goldberg, alias Ronald Weatherby) got out from under FBI charges of bank larceny for passing $250,000 in fake checks: by disappearing.
When the Beverly Hills Police department decided that Joe Hunt was the suspect, with no body and only circumstantial evidence, the letter says, “no further investigation will be conducted.”
When investigators began connecting the dots and began looking into Levin’s criminal history, they compiled a list that was “just a sample” of what police had on file under his name: grand theft, battery, stolen property, a stolen vehicle, harassment, robbery (indicated as “211”), burglary, and an alleged drug act involving a minor.
When investigators went to Levin’s listed place of employment, they found that the address was a fake: nothing more than a mailbox in an office building.
In an FBI interview with a corporate security administrator for Fidelity Group, investigators learned that Ron Levin deposited bad checks into two accounts and immediately attempted to withdraw the funds. Following Levin’s suspicious activities, Fidelity hired an investigator, who learned that Levin had an extensive criminal history and had over 100 civil court filings against him, and had associates in organized crime.
In an interview in which Joe Hunt discussed the infamous “to do” list that was part of his trial, Joe mentioned the multitude of lawsuits Levin faced, and how they left the unrepentant con man unfazed.
“The idea of civilly suing him — it’s just like, get in line,” Joe said. Levin had boasted to Boys Club members that he was an expert at converting criminal fraud into a civil matter to avoid arrest, so legal action simply didn’t seem like a meaningful option.
Joe explained that the list was written out not as a literal plan of action, but part of a desperate ploy to intimidate Levin into paying back funds he had swindled from Joe and Joe’s investors.
Levin tried to pull a similar bank fraud with Progressive Savings and Loan, as detailed in the following letters to the U.S. Attorney:
Further FBI investigation revealed that Levin also heisted a drawing by Andy Warhol from an art gallery, and then offered his “services” to the gallery to help recover it.
Then there was Levin’s theft of $500,000 (in 1980s dollars!) worth of video and photographic equipment, detailed in this story from the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner that called Levin’s loot a “One-man video warehouse.”
The story illustrates that Levin’s criminal history ran the gamut from sophisticated cons to common thievery.
Joe discusses his dream of starting a family.
Joe Hunt discusses how if had he been released, he and his wife would have hoped for children.
Well, we would’ve wanted to have children, we’ve discussed that. But unfortunately, that ship has sailed.
I mean, she’s four years younger than I, and so, we’re both passed that really. I mean, theoretically possible, potentially, but it’s ill-advised at our ages.
But we even had a name for our daughter, should we have one.
When we first met and shortly before we married we were talking about it. I had some hope at that time that I’d be released by action of the courts, so we had a name for our little girl in mind.
So, that’s a point of sadness and regret for me, and her as well.
Interview: Joe Hunt discusses the sixteen people he helped to receive sentence reductions.
Joe Hunt discusses the sixteen people he helped avoid a life sentence and the dozens that received sentence reductions.
Well yes, I’ve been working, I’ve done habeas petitions and I’ve litigated on behalf of other prisoners.
I’ve also been trying to have them freed, to vacate their conviction, and so, over the years I’ve filed dozens and dozens of—probably close to something like 150—petitions on separate cases.
And I’ve also helped prisoners when I was in the county jail in San Mateo for four years, and I was in Los Angeles County Jail for almost five years total.
I helped other prisoners that were pro per, acting as a mentor to develop the theory of the case, investigate their case, and understand the rules, evidence, and to prosecute their sentence theory.
Anyhow, in total, the sixteen people that I’ve helped either avoided a life sentence because they were acquitted or were released by the courts.
In addition, there were dozens of cases of sentencing reduction.