Associated Press

Man Freed After 20 Years in Calif. Prison

May 4, 2004

Associated Press

A man whose child molestation conviction was overturned after he served 20 years in prison was released from custody Tuesday, his 61st birthday.

"Oh my. I don't know. This is wonderful. It's just amazing," John Stoll said after taking a bow and thanking his lawyers. His first wish was for a steak dinner, followed by birthday cake.

"For 20 years, I've had to go where others wanted me to go," he said.

Stoll walked free hours after Kern County prosecutors told Judge Lee P. Felice they would not seek to retry him and the judge dismissed the 17 counts of child molestation he had been convicted of in 1985.

"He's walking with no chains," marveled Stoll's attorney, Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University. "All those cases that you slog through, this makes you want to go back and do it all over again."

Stoll's decades-old conviction was reversed Friday in Kern County Superior Court after a nearly five-month hearing. Attorneys for two Innocence Project chapters in California had worked for his freedom, claiming authorities coerced false testimony from the victims, who were 6 to 8 years old at the time.

Stoll was convicted along with two other men and a woman of assaulting six children as part of a crime ring that allegedly included sodomy, group sex and pornographic photography.

Prosecutors presented no physical evidence at the original trial. None of the children were ever examined by doctors, even though some of the allegations included forcible sodomy. The case rested on testimony alone.

Four of Stoll's accusers, now adults, testified in January they were manipulated by overzealous investigators until they fabricated the stories. A fifth witness testified he has no memories from that part of his childhood.

The sixth alleged victim, Stoll's son, Jed, still insists his father molested him.

Prosecutors said they still believe Stoll was fairly convicted, but acknowledged they no longer have enough evidence to support a new trial.

The judge sided with defense attorneys, finding investigators overstepped their boundaries with manipulative questioning of the children that led to lies.

All along, Stoll claimed he was swept up in a wave of hysteria in the 1980s that led to the trials of hundreds of people. Many later had their convictions overturned for reasons including prosecutorial misconduct and coercive interview techniques.

In Bakersfield, 46 people were arrested in eight alleged molestation rings. Thirty were convicted, eight had their charges dropped and eight struck plea deals that kept them out of prison.

Twenty-two of those convictions were later reversed for reasons including legal technicalities, prosecutorial misconduct or faulty jury instructions. The rest served out their sentences. One died in prison.

Stoll, the last of his co-defendants in prison, said he had a lot to catch up on after 20 years. He made a call on a cell phone and said he wanted to go shopping. "I have a pretty good idea what's out there - I just haven't touched any of it yet," he said.

Stoll said the best part of the whole process is that he will no longer be labeled a child molester.

"That name does not go with my name any more," he said. "And that's what it's really all about."

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