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Habeas Denied Despite Letters Saying Another Shooter

On June 6, 2010, Ernest L. Prescott, who was then sixteen years old, was riding in a vehicle with Laquisha Williams, Jason Jones and several other individuals associated with the “Ghost Town” gang in Oakland. 

When the car was driving through an area considered territory of a rival gang known as the “Acorn” gang, Jones thought he saw an Acorn gang member with who he had fought while both were previously incarcerated.  The car stopped and Prescott and Jones got out.  They then entered a nearby housing complex in pursuit.

While doing so, they ran into James Johnson, who was not the gang member Jones thought he had seen.  Johnson was then shot multiple times.  Prescott and Jones ran back to their vehicle.  Johnson later died of his wounds.

A resident of the housing complex, Mignon Perry, witnessed the shooting.  Perry said she made eye contact with the shooter, who she described as an African American male between the ages of 16 and 18 and six feet, one inches tall, wearing a while t-shirt and jeans.  She said the shooter was carrying a silver handgun.  She identified Ernest Prescott as the shooter.

While awaiting trial, Prescott temporarily escaped from the juvenile facility where he was being detained.  After he escaped, law enforcement found two letters in his cell in which he admitted to “taking a human being life” and asked for forgiveness and not a guilty verdict.

Prescott and Jones were then tried together.  Jones was acquitted and Prescott was found guilty of murder and discharging a firearm causing death.  The judge subsequently sentenced Prescott to an aggregate term of 50 years to life, consisting of two consecutive terms of 25 years to life, one for the murder and one for the firearm enhancement.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction on direct appeal and the California Supreme Court denied Prescott’s petition for review.

Concurrent with his appeal, Prescott filed a habeas petition in state court.  The habeas largely focused on two letters allegedly written by Jones that Prescott claims absolve him of the shooting, but were not introduced at trial.

The first of these was an unsigned letter, allegedly from Jones, about three months after the shooting, wherein Jones apologized for accusing Prescott of being the shooter and claimed that he felt pressured to accused Prescott out of fear for his family’s safety.  The letter said that another individual named “Poony” was the actual shooter and who was later found in possession of the murder weapon.  The letter’s author stated he would testify to this on Prescott’s behalf.

The second letter was also from Jones and was written the day before trial was to start.  In the letter, Jones stated he wanted to “come clean” and confess to shooting Johnson.

Prescott gave these letters to his attorney, who did not know if they were authentic.  The attorney showed them to a handwriting expert, who could not say they were authentic, so he did not introduce them at trial.

Additionally, Prescott submitted a declaration from Jones dated well after he had been acquitted in which Jones stated he committed the shooting and had written both of the earlier letters.

Finally, Prescott submitted his own declaration stating he was innocent of the shooting.

The California Court of Appeal summarily denied Prescott petition for a writ of habeas corpus and the California Supreme Court denied Prescott’s petition for review. 

In 2016, Prescott then filed a federal habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 asserting that: (1) his due process rights were violated by his attorney’s failure to introduce Jones’ letters at trial; and (2) Prescott received ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to investigate and authenticate the letters.

The district court denied the petition, finding that Prescott’s first claim was based on California law, not federal law, so it was barred in federal court.  As to the second claim, the federal court ruled that the state court reasonably rejected the ineffective assistance of counsel claim.  They agreed that Prescott’s attorney had acted reasonably in having a handwriting expert review the letters before deciding not to introduce the letters at trial.

We present this summary because it is not uncommon for families and even defendant to present counsel with letters attempting to refute eyewitnesses to the crime after a crime such as in this case.

For more information about identification issues, please click on the following articles:
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