FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 21, 2021
CONTACT: San Francisco Public Defender’s Office – Valerie.Ibarra@sfgov.org – (628)249-7946
SF Public Defender Helps Exonerate Man Who Spent 46 Years in Prison
Threatened with the death penalty, the 19-year-old pleaded to crimes he did not commit
SAN FRANCISCO – This week, a San Francisco judge vacated two of the remaining charges that 65-year-old Zachary Vanderhorst pleaded guilty to when he was 19 years old despite his innocence. The guilty pleas, taken in 1974, kept him in prison for 46 years before his current attorneys — Rebecca Young of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and Patrick Murray of Keker, Van Nest & Peters — eventually uncovered evidence and surviving witnesses across and outside the country to prove his innocence; and they relied on California’s reformed felony murder law to win his release in February 2020. As of this week, they have proven his innocence in all of the most serious charges, including a rape he did not commit.
“It’s unconscionable that lawyers could plead a young impoverished man to crimes as serious as rape and burglary when their client didn’t match the suspect description and when police had no forensic or physical evidence tying him to the crimes,” said Ms. Young. “This case illustrates why the reforms we have struggled to achieve in the last few years, particularly reform to the felony murder rule, have been essential to correcting past injustices, and I am grateful to my co-counsel who deeply understood how racial bias impacted what happened to Zachary and was firmly committed to overturning these wrongful convictions.”
In September of 1974, Mr. Vanderhorst participated in a single burglary where his underage co-defendant killed a man in the back of a Fell Street residence while Mr. Vanderhorst was wrapping up a TV in the front living room. Despite the fact that he was not present for, nor participated in the murder itself, Mr. Vanderhorst was eligible to be convicted for first degree murder under the prior felony murder rule because he had participated in the burglary.
Under the threat of the death penalty, his public defenders at the time urged him to plead guilty to the murder rather than go to trial. However, that plea came with other charges — including a slate of other unsolved burglaries and a rape charge, despite Mr. Vanderhorst’s claims that he was not present for any of those other incidents and there was no evidence tying him to those other crimes. His public defenders at the time did not interview a single witness or victim, nor did they pursue any defense such as an alibi, nor did they question the police misconduct during the lineup. In another act of impropriety, the private attorney for the underage co-defendant was present for these negotiations in the judge’s chambers and urged Mr. Vanderhorst to plead guilty. They told him that if he took the deal, he would be paroled in 7-10 years.
“People who work in the criminal legal system want to believe that a conviction is valid despite evidence to the contrary. When Zachary was shipped off to prison at age 19 for crimes he didn’t commit, for a murder he took no part in, the public defenders, the DA and the judge never looked back one time despite glaring evidentiary inconsistencies, police misconduct and gross legal misadvisements; and when he reached out to them over the years, they turned a deaf ear,” said Ms. Young.
Parole Repeatedly Denied
Mr. Vanderhorst faced the Parole Board eighteen times, each time admitting to the single burglary and expressing his remorse that someone had died at the scene. However, telling the truth at a Parole Board hearing is futile because the Board does not care about claims of actual innocence. Thus, the Board denied Mr. Vanderhorst parole each time, stating that he “lacked insight” into his commitment offenses. This was despite the fact that an SFPD Inspector wrote two letters to the Parole Board explaining that the underage co-defendant had been the killer, thus affirming that Mr. Vanderhorst was telling the truth. In a last-ditch effort to get paroled in 2018, Mr. Vanderhorst’s family begged him to confess to all of the charges as if they were true, but that too was insufficient and did not convince the Parole Board to grant his release.
Reforming the Felony Murder Rule
In 2018, members of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, including Ms. Young, advocated to help pass California Senate Bill 1437, authored by Senator Nancy Skinner, which revised the felony murder rule. The law now requires that, in order to be convicted of first degree felony murder, someone who was part of an underlying felony but did not kill anyone must have been a major participant in the underlying felony and have acted with reckless disregard to human life in the killing or acted with an intent to kill. Once that became law in 2019, Ms. Young helped to draft the petitions that were distributed to people in prisons across the state. That’s how Mr. Vanderhorst learned of the new law and reached out to the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office where his case was assigned to Ms. Young.
Knowing that digging into a case from the 1970s would require more resources, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office teamed up with Keker, Van Nest and Peters, who provided pro bono representation from co-counsel Mr. Murray, and paid for the investigator, transcripts, and expert testimony. Together, the team has spent nearly three years doggedly pursuing Mr. Vanderhorst’s claims of actual innocence, working to free and exonerate him.
“Mr. Vanderhorst has borne the weight of wrongful convictions for almost half a century. For too long, his assertions of innocence were ignored by law enforcement, prosecutors, judicial officers, the parole board, and his own attorneys. Mr. Vanderhorst will never get back the time he lost, but vacating his wrongful convictions will hopefully restore to him some measure of dignity and peace as he moves on with his life. It has been my honor to partner with the Public Defender’s office to help achieve this result for Mr. Vanderhorst, and I am grateful for the unwavering support of my colleagues in the pursuit of justice for Mr. Vanderhorst and others who have been wrongfully convicted,” said Patrick Murray, a lawyer with Keker, Van Nest & Peters.
In January 2020, the legal team called witnesses and experts to testify that not only was the original investigation and conviction wrought with police incompetence and malfeasance on the part of the original legal counsel, but also that Mr. Vanderhorst was not the actual killer and had not acted with reckless indifference to human life during that single burglary. The murder conviction was overturned and Mr. Vanderhorst was finally freed after spending nearly three-quarters of his life in prison.
The convictions that remained on his record until this week included the rape charge, which had required Mr. Vanderhorst to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Again, the legal team found witnesses who provided testimony and affidavits that he was not present at the burglary where the rape had taken place, which was buffered by the original description of the assailant which did not match Mr. Vanderhorst. The overwhelming evidence convinced the judge to vacate the convictions of the rape and the related burglary. Mr. Vanderhorst will no longer be required to register as a sex offender.
“I am so grateful to my dream team. Don’t ever plead guilty to something you didn’t do, no matter what your lawyer tells you. You will never be able to undo that plea and you will regret it deeply. Because of Patrick and Rebecca, I feel like I can breathe again,” said Mr. Vanderhorst.
“The remarkable efforts made to overturn these convictions reminds us of the dire need for the resources to expand post-conviction work and help heal from state violence and racial injustice. We know that there are thousands of people, just like Zachary Vanderhorst, along with his family, who continue to suffer the trauma and loss that stem from wrongful convictions, bad plea deals, and excessive punishment. Public defenders and our allies are willing and capable of challenging those convictions if provided the resources,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju.