When California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced that he would not execute anyone during his term as governor, he said he worried that an innocent person could be executed. For me, this is not academic or hypothetical. Although I was not sentenced to death, I was sentenced to death by incarceration ― 50 years to life.
I was exonerated because of a series of incredibly lucky breaks, fateful meetings and chance encounters with multiple lawyers devoted to proving my innocence. If I had been in a different county, I could have been sentenced to death. If one lucky break had fallen the other way, I could still be imprisoned, almost certain to die in prison.
I was unlucky for seven years. Then I got lucky.
I was unlucky when the police assigned to the case decided that doing actual investigative work was difficult. I was unlucky when they showed a purported eyewitness my photo, pointed to it and told her: “Isn’t it Trulove? Are you sure it wasn’t Trulove?” She said no, it wasn’t.
I was lucky because a kid was sitting in the police station, handcuffed to a bench. This kid saw this happening, right in front of him. He didn’t care then. But he remembered. Especially that name. Trulove.
I was unlucky because the police decided not to record or take notes of many of the interviews with this woman, including the interview where she said it wasn’t me.
Later, at trial, the police said the tape recorder had malfunctioned or that the tapes were lost, or maybe both. I was unlucky when, days later, after unrecorded promises, the woman eventually gave the police more or less what they wanted. She said I “looked” like the person who could have been the shooter.
I was unlucky when the district attorney decided that in order to get this woman to testify against me, authorities would move her and give her $63,000 for all housing and food costs for years. This was more than she had ever made in her life. They also moved her sister, too, just to sweeten the pot. I was unlucky because after she received this compensation, the woman became certain that I was the shooter.
I was unlucky that the deputy district attorney who was assigned to prosecute me committed prosecutorial misconduct. I was unlucky when I was convicted on this flimsy testimony and a closing argument that, as the appellate court later said, “was a yarn made out of whole cloth.”
I was lucky one day when I was waiting to be sent to state prison. In my 12-man bunk, this kid came in and sat on his top bunk. I walked past. I had a neck tattoo with my mother’s name on it: “Cheryl Trulove.”
This kid said, “Hey, I heard that name before. Trulove. That’s the name the cops were saying when they pointed at their clipboard with a photograph and asked this woman, ‘Isn’t it Trulove? Are you sure it wasn’t Trulove?’”
I was lucky when this young man agreed to testify. He was a stranger to me, and he was testifying about what the cops did. He was accused of lying. I was unlucky when the prosecutor hid the police report from my lawyer and the judge ― the report that showed that, yep, this young man was in the police station that night all those years ago, exactly when and where he said he was.
I was unlucky when I was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. I was unlucky because this was a time when California’s prisons were dangerously overcrowded. I was unlucky when I saw people getting killed in prison. I was unlucky when I was sliced because I did not know to give up my bunk to a gang member. I was unlucky when I missed my children’s birthdays, and Christmases, and Halloween, and their first days of school.
I was unlucky when I was in prison and received a letter from a court-appointed appellate attorney who had a different client’s name on the form letter he sent to me. I was lucky that my family then found an appellate attorney, Marc Zilversmit, who not only attacked the strength of the prosecution’s case but reopened the investigation.
Marc, through luck and hard work, found true eyewitnesses who knew I hadn’t been the shooter but had never been called to testify. I was lucky to have my case assigned to an appellate division in a court that took a hard look at my case and overturned my conviction.
I was lucky when Alex Reisman and Kate Chatfield were appointed to represent me. I was lucky that they pored over the autopsy report and ballistics evidence and gathered evidence that revealed that the eyewitness’s story was physically and scientifically impossible.
I was lucky that they traveled to state prison to meet the kid who had seen what the police did. I was lucky when they got that previously hidden police report.
Police hid evidence. Their stories contradicted each other. They wrote notes in police files in pencil so that exculpatory notes could be erased.
I was lucky when Kate and Alex teamed up with Nick Brustin and Anna Benvenutti Hoffman at Neufeld Scheck & Brustin to sue the police officers. Then, even more evidence of the police wrongdoing came out in discovery.
Police hid evidence. Their stories contradicted each other. They wrote notes in police files in pencil so that exculpatory notes could be erased. But I was lucky that the master file was brought to court and the pages could be held up to the light. The jury could then see what the erased notes said.
I was lucky when I was awarded $13.1 million for my wrongful conviction. I was unlucky because I will never get those years back. I will never get my children’s childhood back.
Our justice system should not come down to luck. One should not get to live or die based on luck. But it happens. Every day in this country, it happens.
Now, we Californians are all lucky that we have a governor who won’t let it happen on his watch.
Jamal Trulove was born and raised in the Sunnydale Housing Projects in San Francisco. He was an aspiring hip-hop star and actor when, in 2008, he was arrested and subsequently convicted of a murder he did not commit. His conviction was overturned in 2014 for prosecutorial misconduct. In 2015, he was retried and acquitted. He filed a lawsuit for his wrongful conviction, and in 2018, a federal jury found that San Francisco police officers fabricated evidence against him and withheld exculpatory evidence. The jury awarded him $10 million. San Francisco later settled his case for $13.1 million. Jamal plays Kofi in the movie “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”