A man convicted in the traffic death of a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy was given federal court permission this week to sue police for fabricating a report, but not the prosecutors who knew about it.
U.S. District Judge Josephine L. Staton on Thursday dismissed from a civil rights lawsuit two prosecutors who have immunity, although they used the altered report to pursue murder charges against driver Cole Wilkins, who formerly lived in Long Beach but reportedly has moved to Arizona.
Wilkins unknowingly dropped a stolen stove from the back of his truck in the early morning darkness of July 7, 2006. An off-duty deputy on his way to work was killed after he swerved to avoid the boxed stove and ran into a cement truck on the 91 Freeway in Anaheim.
Also dismissed from the suit was the county of Orange. Remaining are California Highway Patrol Sgt. Joseph Morrison and retired Orange County district attorney’s Investigator Wesley Vandiver, who allegedly knew reports were being changed, but said nothing. Prosecutors learned of the forgery from another CHP officer, but did not tell the defense as required.
Wilkins was jailed for 13 years while awaiting trial on a murder charge for causing the death of Deputy David Piquette, 34. Wilkins had taken the stove from a construction site 60 miles away in Riverside County and was charged on the premise that he caused a death in the commission of a crime.
A CHP report indicated that Piquette’s driving, not the stove, was the primary cause of the fatal collision, according to the ruling. Morrison rewrote the report to make it appear Piquette was not the cause and shredded the original document.
Wilkins was convicted of murder and sentenced to 26 years to life, but the state Supreme Court reversed the conviction in 2013 because of faulty jury instructions. Wilkins did not find out about the forgery until after his conviction.
A lower court judge later found former prosecutor Mike Murray committed serious misconduct by not disclosing to the defense the falsification of the traffic report, a violation of the Brady Act. Former prosecutor Larry Yellin, who took over the case from Murray, also was sued.
Wilkins was retried and found guilty of second-degree murder with a reduced sentence of 16 years to life in prison. He appealed and his conviction was lowered to involuntary manslaughter, with a maximum sentence of four years. He was released with credit for time served in March 2020.
Judge Staton wrote that Morrison prevented Wilkins from receiving a fair trial.
“Wilkins has plainly alleged facts sufficient to illustrate that Morrison ‘acted with deliberate indifference to or reckless disregard for’ an accused’s rights or for the truth in withholding evidence from the prosecutors,” Staton wrote in her ruling. “The Court rejects Morrison’s qualified immunity argument. Wilkins had a clearly established due process right not to have material, exculpatory evidence suppressed from his defense.”
Staton continued: “In fabricating inculpatory evidence, destroying exculpatory evidence, and failing to disclose his tampering with the evidence to the prosecution, Morrison violated this clearly established right. Any reasonable officer in his position would have known that this conduct was unconstitutional.”