Larry Pohlschneider was in the law library at Corcoran state prison several years ago when he happened to notice a flier on the bulletin board from Santa Clara University School of Law’s Northern California Innocence Project.
“It said, ‘If innocent please contact,’ and it had an address,” Pohlschneider recalled. He thought it was worth a try, so he put his story on paper and sent it to the project.
On Wednesday, Pohlschneider, 48, walked out of prison, a free man after serving nearly 15 years of a 24-year sentence. Thanks to evidence presented by the Innocence Project, the Tehama County District Attorney’s Office agreed that his 2000 child molestation conviction should be vacated and the charges dismissed due to the ineffective assistance of his trial counsel.
A hearing is set for Nov. 12 in Tehama Superior Court in Red Bluff to determine whether Pohlschneider is “factually innocent,” and thus eligible for state compensation of $140 for each day he spent behind bars. That would amount to approximately $766,500.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Pohlschneider described himself as “just kind of numb and a little relieved.” He said he is not bitter, but he remains incredulous that the system could result in such an injustice.
“I still find it hard to believe that someone could be convicted of a crime that never happened,” he said.
Pohlschneider’s first stop after his attorney picked him up at the Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy was a Denny’s restaurant in nearby Lathrop. Then it was on to Jimmy’s Barber Garage in Sacramento for a haircut – on the house – and across the street to Rick’s Dessert Diner for cheesecake – also on the house.
Albert Earl Harris, the second husband of Pohlschneider’s ex-wife, had already been charged with molesting the three young children who were victimized. Harris, 54, who eventually pleaded guilty and is still imprisoned, is the father of a girl and boy he confessed to molesting. Pohlschneider is the father of a girl that Harris acknowledged molesting, but Pohlschneider said he considers all three of them – now adults – as his own children.
A physician assistant who examined the children in connection with the Harris prosecution decided that the victims subsequently had been molested by another person, and investigators focused on Pohlschneider. Under intense questioning, the children implicated Pohlschneider, but very soon retracted those statements, according to Maitreya Badami of the Innocence Project, who was Pohlschneider’s lead counsel after the organization took his case.
Despite the retractions, Pohlschneider was found guilty by a jury, based primarily on the “so-called medical evidence” of a second molester, Badami said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Badami and other members of the Innocence Project produced sworn testimony from Dr. James Crawford, medical director of the Center for Child Protection at the University of California, San Francisco, Benioff Children’s Hospital and a nationally recognized expert on child abuse and neglect.
“He examined the evidence and was appalled,” said Badami. “He called the conclusion of the physician assistant ‘complete nonsense.’ ”
But the evidence went unchallenged during the trial by Pohlschneider’s lawyer, Thomas Hilligan, according to Badami.
“He failed to consult with a doctor,” she said. “He never even got the photos of the examinations so a doctor could look at them.”
A message seeking comment left Wednesday on Hilligan’s telephone answering machine at his Red Bluff home went unanswered.
Hilligan, 79, resigned his license to practice law in 2008, while professional misconduct charges were pending against him in an unrelated case, according to State Bar records.
Pohlschneider said he has no definite plans for the immediate future, adding, “I haven’t had a chance to adjust to being out.”
The three abused children were prohibited by court order from visiting Pohlschneider during his incarceration, but he said he has “a thick pile of letters” expressing their love for him.
“My first concern is my kids,” he said. “They were not just abused by Harris, but also by the system. They have been living with this guilt forever, and it doesn’t seem to matter how much I tell them it wasn’t their fault.”
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189