Sentence Of Life Without Parole As Result Of Broken System

C. J. Ford is the private investigator in charge of Kenneth Clair’s wrongful conviction case.

On November 15, 1984, Kenneth Clair was arrested for the beating, rape and brutal murder of Linda Faye Rodgers, a babysitter in Santa Ana, California. 5-year-old Jerrod Hessling witnessed the murder. When he was asked to describe the killer, he said that it was a white male. Another child present in the house at the time of the murder saw the white killer’s tattooed arm reach inside the house to open the door. Yet somehow, Kenneth Clair, a homeless Black man living next door was arrested and charged with the crime. Despite no evidence pinning Kenneth Clair to the crime, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death on August 6th, 1987. In 2008, forensic testing of DNA found at the scene of the crime did not match Kenneth Clair’s. Regardless, the District Attorney refused to admit this evidence as proving Kenneth Clair’s innocence. More recently, the Mr. Clair’s death sentence has been commuted to life without parole. However, Mr. Clair still stands by his innocence and is prepared to fight as long as it takes to prove it.

C. J. Ford is the investigator in charge of finding new evidence concerning Clair’s case. He started a petition which has since garnered over 160,000 signatures. He talks to us today about his motivation for pursuing this case, his whole take on the criminal justice system and how we can all help in seeking reform of a system that has so many innocent Black people wrongfully imprisoned.
First of all, could you please explain to us what a private investigator is, what you do and how does one become a private investigator?
C. J. Ford
Well, first of all, I decided to become a private investigator because I guess the way I came up in my life, I got curiosity questions about most things and so I always was trying to find out the answers of things. In California, to become a private investigator you have to have 3 years of experience working with either another private investigation firm, or doing investigative related work. So that’s 6,000 hours you have to have.
Do you have any connections with Clair? Had you met him before you started working on his case? What inspired you to believe in his innocence and investigate his case?
C. J. Ford
Well, I didn’t know Kenneth Clair before I actually got in contact with him around 10 years ago. A lady came to me and she said that there’s this man that was in custody, that really needed a good investigator. I specialize in criminal investigation cases, and she was telling me the scenario about Mr. Clair’s case, that a Black man was put in jail for a crime that someone said that a white man committed. So that’s what got me interested in Kenneth Clair’s case.
Could you briefly explain to us exactly what you did in this investigation concerning the case and could you please let us know the key points in the investigation?
C. J. Ford
Well, when I first started working on the case, the theory was that a white boy, who was around 5 or 6 years old, witnessed this murder and they said he told the police department that a white guy committed the crime. The people that actually live in the house, this boy’s step-father and his mother, kept on trying to insist it was the Black man that had been squatting next door that had committed the crime. So somehow, Kenneth Clair got tied into it because they went on with the people’s words that a Black man committed the crime even though the boy had seen the crime. Matter of fact, the boy had described the crime to the detectives when they showed up on the scene. The boy told the detectives, “It was a white guy who looks like you and me that did it.” So they took the little boy downtown to question him. Anyway, because his stepdad said “Well, my stepson can’t differentiate between colors, so he doesn’t know the difference between Black people and white people”, when they questioned him, they showed him pictures, and the boy knew who Black people were, who white people were, and Hispanic people. They had a Chinese person and a Japanese person there and the boy couldn’t tell their races apart, he just said that they’re Chinese and he called everyone that looked like Asians just Asians. So the police detectives said, “Yeah, well, he can differentiate between colors.” And then the boy went on to describe what exactly happened on the crime scene, and the boy’s accuracy was just perfect. The lady had been hit on the head with a mallet, she had been stabbed with an object, and the boy knew exactly where she was stabbed, he even knew where her panties were. So the police officer said, “Well he’s describing the crime perfectly and it coincides with the coroner’s report so he had witnessed the crime.” But for some reason, they knew that the boy witnessed the crime and they knew that he can differentiate between colors, but they wanted to pin it on this Kenneth Clair guy, who was a Black African-American anyway. Kenneth Clair did a lot of robberies and stuff in the area but he never did anything like kill anybody. But they thought that he was a disposable human being and they could put the blame on him and frame him and put him in this murder and no one would ever care about him.
Why do you believe that your investigation should explain Clair’s innocence? 
C. J. Ford
Well, because when I first got involved in this investigation, the federal public defender had been working on the case for like 15 years, but they couldn’t even find Mr. Clair’s alibi witness or anything. Also, the District Attorney’s office and the police department told them there was no crime scene evidence and that it all had been destroyed, so for fifteen years, they were going under the assumptions that there was no evidence on the case. But when I got involved with the case, I found the crime scene evidence. They had it at the police department the whole time, and they just lied to the defense and told them that they didn’t have it. So I found out that that was a lie, and then after a while, they tested the evidence and the DA’s office didn’t want to give the results to the defense, and then I discovered that the DNA didn’t match Kenneth Clair’s at all, that it matched someone else’s.
And this brings me to one other issue. Why is the District Attorney refusing to admit the evidence of the DNA?
C. J. Ford
Because – I don’t know if you’ve been following Orange County – we have a big thing down here with the DA’s office, and it’s been going on for years and years. They’ve just been withholding exculpatory evidence in cases and when they’re wrong about something they won’t admit it. Kenneth Clair’s case for instance, once they found out that the DNA didn’t match his, they didn’t say anything to the defense. I had to find out that they had been secretly testing the evidence and that it didn’t match Kenneth Clair’s. If I hadn’t ever looked and found those results, they would’ve kept their little secret. Kenneth Clair has always had bad counsel, from day number one his counsel never tried to really work to get him out. They’ve always sided with the DA on issues and they just never did anything that actually helped him on his case.
What actions are you going to take? What’s the next step?
C. J. Ford
What I did, is I set up a petition and it now has I think 161,000 signatures on it. That’s like the 3rd highest find justice petition right now in the country. Besides the petition, there’s been 2 documentaries made by Reason TV, ABC is getting ready to come out with its documentary on the case, and also CNN is going to come out with a documentary, they’ve already questioned a lot of the people and will actually be coming out within about 30-60 days.
Did you organize this all by yourself or are there any people behind the scenes helping you with this investigation and the petition as well?
C. J. Ford
Well, when I first got on the case I actually did most of the investigation work myself because if I had staff I would have to pay them. When Kenneth Clair’s case started out I got a little bit of money, but then it all of a sudden became a pro-bono case. So I started the petition by myself, and now that the petition has started to attract many people, that’s when the media started getting interested in finding out what was going on. There’s probably a lot of people now that are out there independently working and trying to find out the results because I know the DA’s office has been under-fire about this case. We have a guy named Scott Sanders that’s going after that same DA for other cases and a couple of death row cases that he had people executed on that he was withholding evidence. So we’re really pretty progressive down here right now, trying to get rid of some of this dishonesty in the DA’s department. Right now I’m trying to do what I can to change the justice system because I think that these DA’s should be put up on criminal charges, because as I was discovering these things the only thing that happened to any of these DA’s when it was found that they were not disclosing information, was that they got a little hand-slap from the judge. But Kenneth Clair’s spent over 30 years of his life in jail because these guys don’t want to come forward and do their job. They’re supposed to be representing the people, but they’re only representing their own self-interests.
This case is quite similar to that of Jerome ‘Skee’ Smith who was also wrongfully convicted of a murder when he was just 15. He was jailed for life with parole and he’s been in jail for the past 31 years. He’s going to have a juvenile re-sentencing hearing on October 14. It seems that the justice system here in the U.S is only interested in incarcerating Black people even when there’s no evidence tying them to crimes. Black people are very disposable in this system.
C. J. Ford
That is absolutely true because Kenneth Clair was Black and homeless and they just felt like this man didn’t need a life. They just took his life away from him.
What’s the nearest goal? Is it to get a new trial for Clair?
C. J. Ford
Right now that’s the stage he’s in. His attorney right now is trying to see if she can get him a new trial. Now the DA’s office doesn’t want to go behind and get a new trial because they don’t have anybody that can testify. I’ve already proven and gotten a statement from his girlfriend who they had extorted to say that he was at the crime scene that day or he was around the crime scene and I also have found out that they also paid money to her to say that her boyfriend was just in the area at the time. He was never there, so the DA actually created a false witness to even convict him. Now that we know that the DNA doesn’t match, the fingerprints don’t match, all the DA’s saying is that he made a confession that he did it. Kenneth Clair has never confessed that he did anything. For years, the DA’s office tried to ignore me, because I was like one person going up against them. So I started going to the media and finding other activists here in Orange County, and finding other things that the DA’s office had done, like they had confidants who informed us that the DA’s office lied. I teamed up with the right people, with a guy named Scott Sanders who’s a public defender, and there’s a writer whose name is Scott Moxley, he’s the only person that would print this stuff in the paper because the other papers in Orange County are really conservative papers, they don’t like to print anything that helps Black people or Hispanics. So we’ve got a really aggressive campaign going here in Orange County, first of all, to bring the DA up on charges because he’s done this in numerous cases, not just the Kenneth Clair case, and also we’re going against the DA’s office because they had all this evidence for years and they just sat on it and they never went after the people that really committed the crime.
Which lawyers are you working with on this case at the moment?
C. J. Ford
Well, the lawyer that he has right now, she’s a conflict attorney for the county. Her name is Denise Gragg. But he’s going to get rid of her because there’s a conflict on the case.
Clair was convicted of an awful crime, and friends and relatives normally break connections with people who are convicted of such crimes. How are his family and friends treating him? Do they still support him?
C. J. Ford
Yes. Some of them are, especially now. Kenneth Clair has lost his dad and other people over these years. And with criminal cases like this, when they first happen everybody is trying to help and they’re out there doing things, but over the years they start to fall out, they don’t visit anymore, they don’t write letters. So I’ve gotten Kenneth Clair’s family back together, his wife and one of his sisters and some of the other relatives. I have everybody together, we had a rally and a couple of other things. There are more people jumping on the band wagon now that it’s moving, that never talked to Clair for years.
What kind of communication does he have with the outside world? Can he call us or can we call him and talk with him?
C. J. Ford
Yeah, he can.
How’s he been holding up? What has he been doing all these 31 years, and how has prison changed him?
C. J. Ford
Well, when I first met Mr. Clair about 10 years ago, he was really bitter, I guess because he was in jail for something he didn’t do. He had counsel that really wasn’t working on his case and as I started working on his case and finding all these results, the things that his attorneys weren’t doing for him, Clair got even angrier because he was saying that, “Why didn’t you guys do this? I’ve been in here for like 20 years, and you guys have done absolutely nothing.” And the thing in California is that, these death row attorneys get paid a certain amount of money every year just to file a couple of briefs and act like they’re working on the case. They are not anxious to get anyone out because if they do get somebody out, then they’re not going to have that income coming in anymore. And that’s what they’ve been doing to Clair. They’ve been just filing a whole bunch of stupid useless briefs on his case and acting like they’re doing something but they’re not anxious to actually get him out.
That is absolutely disgusting!
C. J. Ford
Yeah, I’m trying not to be too upset when I’m talking about this because I really think that that’s going to help to really get things done instead of being angry and doing a lot of yelling, but I am really angry inside. And I’m not even a bit as angry as he used to be. He knows that if they have him to trial, the DA doesn’t even have enough evidence to go through with it. And if he wins in the retrial, he’s going to get like $100,000 for every year that he was falsely incarcerated, plus on top of that he can actually sue for some damages because they withheld all this evidence on him. They intentionally kept this man locked up all this time. They’re going to try at one point to tell him, “Hey we can release you like tomorrow or something like that as long as you don’t try to sue us or go back at us.” And a lot of times people fall for that. A lot of defendants, when they’re falsely convicted of a crime, they want to just get out. They want to forfeit the money and then they can never get it, but Kenneth Clair is not going to do that. He’s going to ride this thing the whole way even if he has to stay in jail for an additional 4-5 years proving it.
It’s really terrible what’s happening with our system.
C. J. Ford
Yeah, they act like Black people’s lives don’t matter at all. It’s like they got this guy, they put him in jail, and they don’t care what happens to him and his relationship with his family. He’s got people that have grown old and died, he could never go to any of their funerals, it’s a shame and it’s criminal.
So are you planning to do any rallies and events?
C. J. Ford
Well, we have one rally already and we’re planning another one on October 14th. Last time we had a lot of speakers, some of them were community speakers, some of them were people that had been falsely accused of crimes, we had mothers that had their sons falsely accused of crimes and that type of stuff. And I want to really see if I can get the petition signed more. It’s just that a lot of times it’s hard to market the petition when you can’t find exactly the right groups that would do it for you. Sometimes groups are interested but one or two of their members will sign and not the whole organization. So I’m trying to get complete organizations to sign.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to tell our readers?
C. J. Ford
I would like to say that they have to stand up and go against the justice system being perverted like it’s being done now. And the only way that we’re going to change this is we all have to be united in these types of cases where these people have been wrongfully accused. We have to advocate for prosecutors, they have to get more than a hand-slap when they withhold evidence and that kind of stuff, we have to press that the prosecutors are prosecuted criminally themselves, so they have to pay the penalty of going to jail, and we have to go after the judges in some of these courtrooms when they let the DAs run the courtrooms, when they act like the DA is always right and these judges just don’t go after them. The judges should even punish the DAs more for doing these crimes instead of just tell them things like, “Oh well, yeah, I guess you should’ve brought that evidence out.” And just smack their hand and just let them continue to practice. So we can change this justice system as people but we all have to get together and do it together. It can’t be done just by one person, it can’t be done for one case, everybody wherever they are, has to fight these types of cases even if we have to appear in court on all of them and show that we have the numbers.

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