Besieged by murder, rape, and the most vile conspiracies, the all-American town of Bakersfield, California, found its saviors in a band of bold and savvy prosecutors who stepped in to create one of the toughest anti-crime communities in the nation. There was only one problem: many of those who were arrested, tried, and imprisoned were innocent citizens.
In a work as taut and exciting as a suspense novel, Pulitzer Prizewinning author and journalist Edward Humes embarks on a chilling journey to the dark side of the justice system. He reveals the powerful true story of retired high-school principal Pat Dunn's battle to prove his innocence. And how Dunn, prosecuted for killing his wife to inherit her millions, was the victim of a case tainted by hidden witnesses, concealed evidence, and behind-the-scenes lobbying by powerful politicians.
Even more disturbing, Humes demonstrates how the mean justice dispensed in Bakersfield is part of a growing national trend in which innocence has become the unintended casualty of today's war on crime. American cities are enjoying their lowest crime rates in decades. But at what price? Mean Justice provides answers both compelling and frightening.
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In autumn 1986, after Pat and Sandy had been living together in the old Paola house on Crestmont Drive for two or three months, she got up one morning and said, "Let's take a ride, I need to see the lawyer."
Pat said sure, and, once in the downtown law office, he sat in the waiting area watching the secretaries while Sandy met with her attorney privately. It was a law firm that specialized in family law, real estate matters and other kinds of civil litigation, and Pat assumed that the meeting had to do with Sandy's imminent divorce from her second husband. But when they left the office an hour later and settled into the car, Sandy tossed a thick brown envelope onto his lap and said, "Here, put this away somewhere."
He looked at her and raised an eyebrow, and she said, "It's my will. I'm leaving you everything."
Pat thought she was joking at first, but, sure enough, inside the envelope was a simple four-page will prepared by Sandy's lawyer just that morning. The will named Pat as Sandy's sole heir and appointed him estate executor. It left nothing to the Paola family and omitted Sandy's only sister, Nanette, with whom Sandy had been feuding for years since their mother died and left everything to Sandy. The new will also specifically bequeathed just one dollar to any potential heir who contested the will.
Touched and surprised, Pat wasn't sure what to say. Speaking aloud about such emotionally charged subjects still made him uncomfortable. He chuckled to cover the mixture of warmth and embarrassment he felt, then breezily asked, "So, what are you worth?"
He figured Sandy had little left at that point, just whatever the house might bring in, perha.
The will changed little in Sandy and Pat's relationship: It was not as if Sandy, while living, was turning over responsibility for her finances to Pat. Most of the money and real estate holdings she had inherited from Pat Paola remained her sole property, even after she married Pat, and she continued to use her first married name on checks and bank accounts -- "Alexandra Paola Dunn," she'd sign, and when she spoke her full name, it was with emphasis on the Paola, a symbol of status in Bakersfield, at least in her mind. "That's the good Paola," she'd always say with a nervous laugh, "not the bad payola."
In time, she and Pat developed some of the Paola properties together, they held joint accounts, and Pat had access to Sandy's money whenever he asked for it. The pair even opened a line of credit for two hundred thousand dollars at one bank, with either to draw, though it was backed by Sandy's assets alone. Neither of them ever touched it. Still, it remained clear that Sandy's money was hers alone. And though Pat might be present for meetings with business partners and investment counselors, dispensing opinions and advice, he also usually concluded by saying to Sandy, "Whatever you want is fine with me." For most of their time together -- until a year or so before Sandy vanished, when Pat began taking a much more dominant role in their various real estate projects -- it was clear to all that Sandy had the final say.
As far as anyone who knew them could tell, this arrangement never bothered Pat. Nor did Sandy's attachment to her Paola name and identity. If it did trouble him, he never complained to anyone about it. Sandy must not have been overly concerned about Pat having design s on her money, either; when the divorce from Leon came through in March 1987, she sought no prenuptial agreement or any other protection for her assets. She and Pat just piled into the car and drove off for a quiet, private marriage ceremony -- in Las Vegas, the one and only flamboyant gesture they made as a couple.
After a weekend in Sin City, as Pat insisted on calling it, they settled back into the same old house in East Bakersfield, where, with very few exceptions, they led quiet and uneventful lives. Sandy was the much more active of the two, with her daily predawn power walks and her penchant for collecting jade sculpture. Pat ran his foreclosure business out of the house and, in fits and starts, collected antique guns as a hobby. They were known to be creatures of habit who had many casual friends but few close ones, who went to bed by seven or eight o'clock most nights, who preferred backyard barbecues with neighbors and friends to going out on the town, and who both drank prodigious amounts of alcohol daily, which in part explained their early bedtimes. Pat was quite open about his round-the-clock drinking, while Sandy tried, often successfully, to conceal hers. Many friends were under the impression that she didn't drink at all. Together, however, the two of them could easily polish off a fifth of hard liquor in a day, and those who did business with the couple quickly learned to schedule meetings in the morning.
Even with the drinking, their friends and most of their neighbors considered the Dunns charmingly eccentric -- people who genuinely seemed to like and love one another in their own, occasionally crabby way. Pat prided himself on his abilities as a host, never allowing a guest 's glass to stand empty, always putting steak, not hamburger, on the grill. Sandy would sit back and smile at her husband's fussing over visitors -- the kitchen was more his domain than hers. But, in all other matters, she always took care of Pat, catering to him in every way, doing things for him without being asked, making sure he always had fresh stores of shaving cream, enough of his favorite beer, the week's TV Guide. They were little things, really, but things no one had ever done for Pat, a man still stung by childhood memories of having to work just to get new clothes for school. He regularly marveled to friends and family about how Sandy seemed to know just what he needed when he needed it. "And poof, just as something's about to run out, there's a new one sitting there, a fresh toothpaste or a new razor," Pat told one friend, as if he were describing an act of magic rather than Sandy's well-timed trip to the grocery store. This solicitous care would move Pat in ways no extravagant gesture ever could. To Pat's way of thinking, such small kindnesses were the best way of all to say I love you, and he had finally found a partner in life who felt the same way. As Pat told it, Sandy took care of him in a way his first wife, even his own mother, never would or could, which is why early in their marriage he began calling Sandy "Mom."
Given their odd hours and other eccentricities, the Dunns were by no means universally beloved. Some acquaintances felt their relationship seemed to be based as much on bickering as on love, and there was some truth to this. Both could be stubborn and opinionated people at times, and Sandy in particular was known as much for the staying power of her gr udges as for her genteel manner. Their detractors, and there were several right in the neighborhood, saw only this negative side of the Dunns. These people tended to describe Sandy as a flighty snob who at times affected an ostentatious manner reminiscent of Zsa Zsa Gabor. They considered Pat a gold digger who had risen above his station in life. (Still, even their critics had to admit that the Dunns' humble clothes, home and habits suggested that the couple had little interest in flaunting their wealth -- to Pat and Sandy, money was a tool, not something to be displayed.) Those in the neighborhood who had known and liked the legendary Pat Paola seemed particularly unkind about "the new husband," as they called Pat Dunn. They never really forgave Sandy for marrying a mere schoolteacher, and they were particularly scandalized when Pat drove Paola's vintage tail-tinned Cadillac in the Bakersfield Christmas parade, something Paola traditionally had done before senility left him incapable of carrying out the annual ritual. "As if Dunn could take Mr. Paola's place," sniffed one angry neighbor. "He has no right to drive that car."
Pat and Sandy seemed oblivious to much of this, though Pat was known to play the occasional practical joke on neighbors who disliked him. He continually feuded with one next-door neighbor in particular, a retired plumber named Otis Coppock, whose partial deafness exacerbated his and Pat's regular misunderstandings. In one of their more memorable bouts, Coppock's daughter, a former schoolmate of Pat's daughter, yelled over the fence at Pat one day during a Dunn family barbecue, and Coppock later telephoned with a follow-up complaint. Apparently, the Coppocks felt the Dunns were being too noisy. "Listen, Coppock," Pat snarled into the phone, shouting so his neighbor would hear every word, as his daughter, Jennifer, and son Patrick listened. "Meet me outside and bring your dog. And I'll kick your ass and my dog will kick your dog's ass and go ahead and bring your daughter, too, and my daughter will kick her ass to boot."
Pat could barely keep from laughing during this mock tirade. To him and his kids, who were giggling in the background, it was all an absurd joke. But Coppock took it as a serious threat and slammed the phone down. He never spoke to Pat after that day, and made no secret of his animosity toward his neighbors. Though Sandy wasn't there on the day of the barbecue, she battled with Coppock as well, and he once accused her of mistreating the ailing Pat Paola, whom he idolized. Coppock had occasionally seen the naked Paola in the backyard, and believed the ailing financier when he ranted about Sandy taking his clothes and locking him out. The plumber would later say Sandy struck and abused her elderly first husband, thereby contributing to his death, though he also once claimed Sandy drove her second husband to death as well, despite the fact Leon was very much alive.
Still, most people who knew the Dunns seemed willing to accept their eccentricities -- his practical jokes, her unshakable habit of hoarding everything from plastic bags to old clothes. They were known as loyal friends willing to help those close to them when trouble struck. Pat and Sandy helped one financially strapped couple start a business of their own, and Pat gave work and one of his trucks to a troubled young man -- an old friend of his son Danny -- when no one else would hire him.
Most ly, every day seemed the same at the Dunn household. Sandy would rise before dawn to go for her early morning walk, and Pat would have the coffee ready by the time she returned two hours later. As he kept the cups full, Sandy sat at the kitchen table and read the newspaper aloud for Pat. They liked keeping informed about doings in their city, particularly about city politics, as they began laying plans to develop some of the vacant land Sandy had inherited from Pat Paola, still trying to fulfill his visions for East Bakersfield. In the last year of Sandy's life, Pat became much more active in her financial affairs as they worked on two large developments, a housing tract and a movie-theater complex. The theater project had run afoul of certain city officials, and so Pat began to read voraciously about city politics. The city council, the planning commission, the county government -- all had to be understood, massaged and placated if the plans were to go through, he told Sandy.
The Dunns also obsessively read about crime in Bakersfield, their main concern and fear, something they shared with many of their neighbors. Their interest was particularly keen because the College Center mall Sandy had inherited -- where she took her daily walks -- was now in a high-crime area. They also followed the increasing power and prestige of Kern County's tough, law-and-order district attorney, whom they both supported in his uncompromising approach to law enforcement. Pat and Sandy felt Bakersfield needed someone like this DA in control, for the city seemed increasingly prey to the most bizarre and frightening crimes -- escalating violence, serial killers, a Dungeons and Dragons murder ring that claimed the life of the district attorney's own barber, a disturbing number of corrupt cops, judges and other officials, and, of course, the devil-worshiping child molesters who had made national news in recent years. "I was one of the first principals to bring counselors into the school to talk about child abuse and abductions," Pat said every time one of the big molestation cases hit the papers. "I saw it coming."
Like most of their neighbors and peers, Pat and Sandy had been horrified when, one by one, these molesters began walking out of prison after appealing their convictions. Now, the newspapers said, the molesters were supposed to be the victims -- of tainted evidence, of prosecutorial misconduct, of mass hysteria. But the Dunns, along with nearly everyone they knew in Bakersfield, didn't buy any of it. They believed their district attorney when he declared that the appeals judges were wrong, that these jurists were misguided liberals who cared more about criminals' rights than crime victims. "It's those damn judges," Pat agreed heartily when Sandy read him the latest news about convicts appealing their way out of prison. "They won't let the police do their job."
It never seems to end, Pat often said when Sandy finished reading the crime news. Just a few months before Sandy disappeared, the Dunns had followed the case of a high school track star named Offord Rollins, convicted of murdering his former girlfriend to clear the way for a new girl. It was an ugly case that, because of its racial overtones, tore an enormous rift in the community. Rollins was black, the murdered girl Latina, the judge and jury all white. The prosecutor pointed to violent rap lyrics penned by the young athlete as evidence of his v iciousness; the defense lawyer complained that official racism and misconduct, not hard evidence, put his client in prison. Even an arch-conservative like Sandy had wondered aloud one morning over her newspaper whether the defense lawyer might be right. "That case just doesn't make sense --" she had started to say.
"They wouldn't have arrested him if he hadn't done it," Pat interrupted reflexively, adamantly -- a true believer. "He must be guilty." To Pat's way of thinking, no innocent man could ever be prosecuted in America without the truth sooner or later coming out. "There'd be no reason to do it," he told Sandy, applying free-market reasoning to the justice system. "What would the cops and the DA get out of framing that kid? It's not like they get paid by the arrest. There's nothing in it for them."
Pat's law-and-order attitude, his trust in "the men in blue," never seemed to waver, not even after he and Sandy had their own brush with the legal system three years after moving in together -- the one documented instance of marital discord in the Dunn household.
On October 19, 1989, shortly before nine in the evening, Sandy dialed 911 on her bedroom telephone. When the dispatcher answered, Sandy said, "He hit me. My husband hit me. And I want him arrested." She reported that the assault had happened five minutes before she placed the call to the authorities. The dispatcher promised help would be there quickly.
When sheriff's deputies arrived exactly six minutes after Sandy placed the call, they found Pat sitting calmly in the den of the Crestmont house. He was chatting with one of his best friends, Kate Rosenlieb, a former student who, at Pat's urging, had gone on to take a seat on the Bakersfield City Planning Commission, which reviewed every proposed real estate project in the city. The two were sitting and drinking beer, and Rosenlieb clearly had arrived before Sandy called the police and had been there for some time. Pat had telephoned her earlier in the evening and asked her to come over for a visit. She would later say she had seen nothing untoward happen, and hadn't even set eyes on Sandy until the deputies arrived.
Once the police walked in, Sandy emerged from the back of the house. She had a small cut behind her right ear that had left a touch of blood on her earlobe and in her hair, though she refused any medical treatment. "He was angry with me, I don't know why," Sandy told the deputies. "He was drinking and yelling. I came in the bedroom and pulled back the covers to go to bed, and that's when he hit me. Twice, with his fist."
The deputies arrested Pat on the spot for misdemeanor spousal abuse. They asked him no questions, but he volunteered, "No, I did not hit her." Later, they took him to the county jail, where he asked for a lawyer, though he never actually saw one or hired one.
Kate Rosenlieb, meanwhile, offered to stay at the house to help, but Sandy said, "No, I want you out of here." Sandy looked dazed, but Rosenlieb still left -- without the deputies asking her a single question, not even taking her name. She left feeling deeply disturbed, certain that her friend Pat, someone she long admired, had indeed struck Sandy. The incident would leave a long-lasting impression on the young city official, one that would return to haunt her and Pat Dunn. No one -- not Pat, not Rosenlieb and not the sheriff's department -- realized Kate actually could have provi ded an alibi of sorts for Pat, as she was sitting talking with him over beers when Sandy claimed to have been beaten. Something was wrong with Sandy's account, though no one knew it at the time.
As Pat would later tell it, this incident marked the first time that he noticed Sandy display a memory or mental problem. He didn't recognize it at the time, but he would later come to see this episode as a first symptom, perhaps, of the early onset of Alzheimer's disease. According to Pat, there had been no fight and no hitting that night -- Sandy simply went rigid, her face blank as she stood in the bedroom. Then she lost her balance, slipped and struck her head on a bench at the foot of the bed. As Pat bent to help her up, she looked up at him with a dazed expression and said, "You hit me." She then refused to listen to his denials, refused his offers of help, and insisted she just wanted to be left alone. So he left the room and called Kate Rosenlieb, who came over a short time later. He didn't realize Sandy had called the police until they walked through the door and arrested him.
After that night, Sandy rarely talked of this incident, so only Pat Dunn's account survives. What is known is that Sandy immediately went down to the jail and posted Pat's five-thousand-dollar bail, and he returned home with her. They continued living together, and most of their neighbors remained unaware that anything had happened. Even Otis Coppock, who watched every move at the Dunn house, was unaware that Pat had been arrested. The case against Pat was eventually dismissed after Sandy told prosecutors that nothing had happened, that she had made a mistake, and that she would not press charges. Legally, this meant Pat w as innocent of spousal abuse, just as he had claimed all along. Given that Sandy initially claimed Pat struck her at a time when he apparently was sitting having a beer with a friend, there is every reason to accept her recantation at face value. It is also true, however, that many wives lie to protect abusive husbands. Though she never let him know it, Pat's good friend Kate Rosenlieb secretly suspected this was exactly what Sandy did: She lied to protect him. It was an assumption that would later have grave implications for Pat Dunn.
Whatever happened between the Dunns that night -- accident or violence or the beginning of a long, slow mental decline for Sandy -- their marriage and their daily rituals continued as if nothing had happened. If anything, the couple seemed to grow closer. They searched for retirement homes in Hawaii and Cabo San Lucas, putting bids in on several properties, but in the end deciding to stay in their comfortable home in Bakersfield, at least for the time being. And when Pat grew ill with a ruptured appendix in January 1992, Sandy withdrew twenty thousand dollars from one of the Paola accounts and paid cash for the surgery, as neither of them had medical insurance. Then Sandy nursed Pat back to health at home, caring for him constantly for nearly a month. Several of their friends remarked on how solicitous Sandy seemed throughout Pat's convalescence, and how grateful he was for all the care and attention she lavished upon him. He repeated his now familiar boast: "Nobody takes care of me like Mom."
During this time, however, Pat's business began to falter for lack of attention. Normally, he aggressively telephoned banks and mortgage lenders daily, pursuing their busine ss and seeking new homes in foreclosure. But since falling ill, he had let things go. "Why don't you just close it down?" Sandy finally asked. "We don't need the money. Let's play with what we've got."
Pat felt hesitant at first, but Sandy got their accountant to pull together some figures to show that the business was now costing more than it brought in, and Pat finally said, "Good idea. Let's play with what we've got."
A short time later, Sandy made an appointment with Kevin Knutson, a financial planner, to discuss forming a living trust. Knutson lived with Teri Bjorn, the Dunns' real estate attorney, and the couples occasionally socialized. At a barbecue at the Dunns' house, Knutson and Sandy began chatting about investments, and she mentioned her desire that Pat have greater access to her finances and the Paola properties, particularly if she were to slip mentally, from Alzheimer's disease or any other cause. When Knutson remarked on how trusts could be used to shield assets and avoid inheritance taxes far better than a simple will would, Sandy seemed very interested. She invited Knutson over to discuss the details of setting up such a trust for her and Pat. The meeting was set for the morning of June 30, a Tuesday. "Come at lunch time," Sandy said. "We'll feed you." It would be the very day Sandy disappeared.
By this time, the night that Sandy had Pat arrested for spousal abuse seemed a part of the distant past, almost forgotten and never discussed. There had been no recurrences -- if anything, the incident had served only to strengthen Pat's faith in the hard-as-nails justice system of Kern County. Indeed, he considered the experience a demonstration of how well the system worked. "The p olice had to err on the side of protecting her," he would later say. "I understand that, and I think it's right. The truth came out in the end. That's the way the system works."
To almost everyone's astonishment, it was a faith Pat Dunn seemed to retain right up to the day he was convicted of first-degree murder.
Copyright © 1999 by Edward Humes
What People are Saying About This
From a barnesandnoble.com e-nnouncement
Presumed innocent until proven guilty, right? Not so in the case of the People v. Patrick Dunne -- or, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes discovered, not so in dozens of other cases in Bakersfield, California. Humes's compelling new book, MEAN JUSTICE: A TOWN'S TERROR, A PROSECUTOR'S POWER, A BETRAYAL OF INNOCENCE, shows how the gross travesty done to Patrick Dunne, a small-town principal wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife, exemplifies a disturbing national trend of individual injustice. The main reason behind this abuse is -- according to Humes -- the immense and unchecked power of public prosecutors. In his original essay for barnesandnoble.com, Humes explains why these sorts of miscarriages occur, and what can be done to stop them.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent by Edward Humes
When I began work on MEAN JUSTICE, indeed, before I even knew I had a new book on my hands, I had a simple, straightforward question to answer: Did a retired high-school principal by the name of Pat Dunn kill his wife for her millions? Or had he been sent to prison for another man's crime?
Simple question, perhaps. But it turned out there was nothing easy or simple about the case of the People vs. Patrick Dunn, or about the town in which it took place -- Bakersfield, California, a community that, literally, has made itself the toughest town on crime in America. It turned out that single question pried open the door on a story of injustice on a massive sale -- on hundreds of men and women unjustly prosecuted and convicted in a single town for crimes they did not commit. And, finally, it turned out this oil-and-farm boom town just two hours north of Los Angeles was no aberration: It was an example, if an extreme one, of a growing problem.
I found that there is an unintended casualty in our nation’s war on crime -- innocence. It’s not just about bulging prisons and three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws and doing away with lengthy appeals. What I had always supposed was a rare occurrence in our justice system -- the conviction of the wrong person -- turns out to be depressingly common. There is an unseen price-tag tied to those retreating crime stats our leaders so proudly tout, and its being paid by the innocent with lost freedom, devastated families, and ruined lives. MEAN JUSTICE is their story.
The central drama in MEAN JUSTICE is the tale of an ordinary man who, like most of us, never thought an innocent person could be put on trial, and that, in any case, it certainly could never happen to him. I am far less interested in policy books than in compelling narratives -- I prefer nonfiction that reads like a novel -- and so MEAN JUSTICE is first and foremost a story of intrigue, betrayal and community-wide passions. It is the story of Pat Dunn.
When Sandy Dunn disappeared during a late-night walk and Pat Dunn reported her missing, detectives decided very quickly that he had done away with her. Even before a body had been found, and with absolutely no evidence of a struggle or any other sign of violence, the authorities abruptly stopped searching for the missing woman and began investigating Pat as a suspect. They embraced the most disreputable witnesses, if they had something bad to say about Pat, while disregarding any person or evidence that interfered with their theory of his guilt. Although the courts in Bakersfield treated his case as open and shut, Pat's case exemplifies the prosecutorial and police abuses that can put the innocent behind bars. His trial was marked by tainted witnesses, an error-ridden investigation, and crucial evidence kept hidden by the prosecution that, had it been revealed to jurors, could have destroyed the prosecutor’s case. Not even the absence of physical evidence linking him to the crime, the lack of a motive for him to kill, nor the impossibility of the scenario painted by the prosecution could save Dunn from a life sentence once the deck was so stacked against him.
The well-meaning but misguided zeal for public safety that led to Pat Dunn's imprisonment, I soon found as I settled into the city of Bakersfield, was responsible for many other injustices in that same community: There was the high-school track star and class president whose Olympic aspirations were shattered when he was imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit and a rape that never happened; the diesel mechanic and his wife whose children were coerced by authorities into falsely accusing them of molestation; the two prison guards accused of a murder conspiracy over insurance money that didn’t exist; and the Mexican immigrant who faced the death penalty before the authorities reluctantly checked his fingerprints -- and found out he had been telling the truth all along when he claimed the police had confused him with a suspect with a similar name. These wrongly accused served as many as fourteen years behind bars before being exonerated. Others linger in prison still.
To put this in context, I should point out, as I do in MEAN JUSTICE, that this pattern of injustice has been repeated throughout the nation, from death row inmates in Illinois freed through the efforts of a college journalism class to scandals in New York, Texas and Los Angeles in which prosecutors sat on evidence of innocence in order to win unjust convictions. In MEAN JUSTICE, I try to explain why these sorts of miscarriages occur, and what can be done to stop them in the future. The key, I found, is in the great powers -- and equally great lack of accountability -- in our public prosecutors.
As Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr has shown us, a prosecutor answers to no one, and his power can humble even a president. What most people don’t understand is that these extraordinary powers are not limited to special prosecutors on Pennsylvania Avenue, but are possessed by every local District Attorney in America. Thanks to the tough laws passed in recent years as part of the war on crime, there is no more powerful figure in American life today than the prosecutor. The wisdom of this policy, and its consequences, is an underlying theme of MEAN JUSTICE.