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Criminal Justice

DA Says LA Man Who Spent 38 Years In Prison For Murder Is Innocent

Maurice Hastings, a bald Black man with glasses wearing a dark suit and tie with a blue and white shirt and blue and white handkerchief in his breast pocket, speaks at a podium. Paula Mitchell, a white woman with her arms folded in front of her, stands to the left. DA George Gascón stands to the right.
Maurice Hastings addresses the media after his release from prison in 2022, flanked by the Los Angeles Innocence Project's Paula Mitchell (l) and DA George Gascón (r).
(Emilio Flores, Cal State LA)
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In a rare decision, the L.A. District Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday that it has found a man who spent 38 years in prison for murder factually innocent. The finding follows a judge's October decision to release Maurice Hastings after DNA testing pointed to another man as the killer.

The judge is expected to accept the DA’s finding during a hearing scheduled for Wednesday. A finding of factual innocence is a determination that someone did not commit a crime and can never be prosecuted again for it.

“It's really important to me, ” Hastings, 69, told LAist. “I’m able to let everyone know I was innocent of this crime,” he said, adding, “I can just move forward.”

In 1983, a jury found Hastings guilty of killing an Inglewood woman and two attempted murders. The verdict came after another jury had found him not guilty. Prosecutors sought the death penalty but failed. Hastings was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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“The DA offices don’t concede on factual innocence lightly,” said Paula Mitchell, director of Cal State LA’s Los Angeles Innocence Project, which helped Hastings win his freedom. “It rarely, rarely happens.”

Prosecutors too often hang onto their belief that someone is guilty when they are not, or want to avoid civil liability for their office, she said. But she also said “sometimes the evidence is not black and white.”

A determination of factual innocence is actually better than a not guilty verdict, which says prosecutors were unable to prove their case beyond a shadow of a doubt.

We know with complete certainty that this person did not commit the crime that he was accused of.
— DA George Gascón

For more than two decades, Hastings had asked for DNA that was collected from semen found in the victim's mouth to be tested. Two district attorneys fought against it, Mitchell said. Finally, Gascón, who has promised to more closely scrutinize past convictions, agreed.

The testing matched DNA from a man serving time in prison for kidnapping and sexual assault.

“We know with complete certainty that this person did not commit the crime that he was accused of,” Gascón said of the factual innocence determination. He said it may help Hastings in any civil lawsuit seeking economic redress for the 38 years he spent in prison.

Gascón acknowledged his office was wrong to block DNA testing in the Hastings case in the past.

“Traditionally the culture in the prosecution’s office is that once you get a conviction, the assumption is that justice has been served,” Gascón said, adding, “then you kind of circle the wagons around protecting that conviction at all costs.”

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“It needs more integrity in higher places,” Hastings said. “There are other innocent men and women behind bars and it's important that we look at those cases.”

Hastings, who is living in transitional housing now, said he is not bitter.

“You have to start working on that when you’re inside” prison, he said. “You have to tell yourself, ‘I’m forgiving everybody.’ I started forgiving people 20 years ago, so now that I’m here, it's genuine.”

In a report issued last September, the National Registry of Exonerations said since 1989, 3,248 people had been exonerated of crimes for which they were convicted. Fifty-three percent of them were Black, nearly four times their proportion of the population. Hastings is Black.

The most common reasons for wrongful convictions included eyewitness misidentification; false confessions by innocent people pressured to admit committing a crime; perjury by informants and others; official misconduct including suppression of evidence and lying by police and prosecutors; and false forensic evidence.

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