San Francisco Chronicle

Wary convict embraces freedom after 19 years

May 20, 2003

Diana Walsh, Chronicle Staff Writer
Glen Nickerson tastes freedom at last

The past several years have been full of high legal drama for Glen "Buddy" Nickerson as he and his lawyers have relentlessly pursued his release from state prison for a double murder he said he never committed.

On Monday, he finally got the freedom he'd been looking for when the Santa Clara district attorney's office announced it would not retry Nickerson for the 1984 slayings of two San Jose drug dealers.

Nickerson, 48, had been free on bail -- but kept under electronic surveillance at his parents' Foster City home -- since March 21, when U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel overturned his 1987 murder conviction. On Friday, in advance of the announcement, Patel lifted the bail and turned off the surveillance.

"I'm glad it's over, but I hope it's really over with," said Nickerson. Patel first released Nickerson on bail two years ago, but he was rejailed a week later after a federal appeals court overturned her decision.

Patel's ruling said it was "more probable than not" that Nickerson is not guilty.

Karyn Sinunu, who oversees murder prosecutions for the Santa Clara district attorney's office, said the decision not to pursue another trial weighed the unavailability of witnesses as well as several other factors, including the time Nickerson had spent in jail.

In a statement, the district attorney's office said prosecutors held a stronger case against Nickerson than found in Patel's release order. Nonetheless, they were putting an end to one of the longest and costliest trials in the history of the county.

"This is not a Hollywood ending," Sinunu said. She noted that Patel did not find Nickerson factually innocent but declined to expand on Nickerson's guilt or innocence.

Nickerson, who had a history of petty crime, was 29 at the time of the murders of John Evans and Mickie King near San Jose. No physical evidence linked him to the case, but investigators maintained that Nickerson, whose brother had been shot and paralyzed by one of the victims a month before, was seeking revenge.

He was one of three men sentenced to life without parole for the slayings.

Nickerson's lawyer, Gerald Schwartzbach, who appealed the case to federal courts, was angered by the district attorney's lack of contrition in his client's case.

"What they omit from their press release is the most distinguishing factor: He's innocent, and the system failed," said Schwartzbach, who represented one of the other convicted suspects earlier and said he took up Nickerson's case pro bono because he was so convinced of his innocence. "How is anyone supposed to have faith in the system when those who are assigned responsibility to administer it are unwilling to acknowledge that it failed?"

The events leading to Monday's decision began early in the case with inconsistencies on the part of the prosecution's star witnesses. The witness originally told investigators the suspect weighed between 190 and 200 pounds but in trial -- after learning police were looking for a heavier suspect -- identified the 425-pound Nickerson as the fleeing suspect. He then recanted that identification.

Another key witness to the murders told investigators that he saw only three masked assailants, and police quickly arrested Nickerson and the two other suspects. But a trail of blood left at the crime scene could not be linked to the suspects or the victims, and it wasn't until 15 years later -- after Nickerson and the others were convicted -- that police linked the blood through DNA to a fourth suspect, William Jahn. Jahn testified that Nickerson wasn't at the scene, and Jahn's conviction in 2001 bolstered Nickerson's appeal.

Then, in January 2002, the so-called ringleader of the murders, Murray John Lodge, stepped forward. Lodge, who was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, testified that Nickerson had nothing to do with the slayings.

The prosecution's case was further tainted after it was revealed that police investigators suppressed evidence and destroyed taped interviews that might have helped Nickerson.

Since his release two months ago, Nickerson has spent much time thinking about the world that passed him by since he was jailed 19 years ago. His son was just 3 months old and his daughter 2 1/2 when he was arrested. So far, only his son has come to visit him in Foster City. Nickerson hopes that, when ready, his daughter will come, too.

"I can't expect them to jump to me with open arms, because I haven't been there for them," he said.

In celebration of his freedom, Nickerson planned to spend Monday night on the coast, taking in the first ocean sunset he's seen since his release.

"It's the first time in 19 years that I can make my own decisions," he said.

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