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Unyielding Pursuit of Justice or Unfulfilled Promises: Doubts Surround California Habeas Attorney

In a quest to exonerate Abel Soto, his family and friends hired Aaron Spolin, a Los Angeles lawyer who advertises himself as “California’s top-ranked habeas attorney.” Soto and his supporters believe he was wrongfully convicted of a 2003 murder, when he was 19 years old. By 2019, he had spent over a dozen years behind bars when they decided to invest their hopes and $21,500 to get Spolin to prove Soto’s innocence.

But rather than meticulously investigating the case and presenting compelling evidence, Spolin’s efforts seemed hasty and ineffective, they said. The petition he filed named eight people who could corroborate Soto’s alibi, placing him elsewhere at the time of the murder. But none of them was interviewed, and no sworn declarations were taken and submitted to the court. The petition was swiftly rejected.

Spolin jumped into his business with a heavy marketing effort in 2019, when California passed AB 2942, expanding review of sentence lengths, and SB 1437, ordering resentencing for anyone convicted under the state’s felony murder statute who did not directly participate in the killing. Then 33, the attorney promoted himself to prisoners and their families via direct mail, also buying up websites with search terms they might use. The resume of a former office manager claimed Spolin’s firm signed up to 2,000 clients, at fees running from $14,000 to over $40,000.

But a review by the Los Angeles Times found Spolin’s filings often missed key elements, like sworn declarations from potential alibi witnesses that would have been crucial in establishing Soto’s whereabouts on the day of the crime. In other cases, Spolin argued for new trials without retaining expert witnesses to bolster his claims. Top habeas experts contend that such comprehensive evidence is essential to sway judges to grant evidentiary hearings.

Spolin maintained that his unconventional approach would eventually force judges to lower the bar for such hearings and allow witnesses to testify openly in court. However, this strategy was not always conveyed explicitly to his clients, they claim.

“That would’ve been a red flag for me,” insisted Rossia Ivey, who charged part of Spolin’s hefty fee on a credit card, trying to overturn the murder conviction of her brother, Alex Ivey, based on review of a video not seen at his trial.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson rejected the petition Spolin filed for Ivey in 2021 because it “include[d] no exhibits or declarations from a video expert alleging what forensic video techniques would uncover in the video in question.” Rossia Ivey said that her family “definitely would not have paid $28,000 for that.”

Another unsatisfied client, mail carrier Angelia Spikes, put in overtime to hire Spolin to free her brother. But like the petition drafted for Soto, the one for Demond Spikes merely mentioned that an alibi witness existed, without naming him or giving any other details. That petition was also rejected.

“I would never have given $20,000 for that. Hell no,” Angelia Spikes said.

“It Needs to Stop Now”

Spolin stuck to his guns, claiming his unusual strategy was part of a brave crusade for change, not unlike the fight for gay marriage. What’s especially surprising about his large client list is that California anticipated a rush of petitions when it passed the laws, so both included funds for public defenders to work cases that would be filed. One, Deputy Los Angeles County Public Defender Karen Nash, said that Spolin “is getting rich off the most vulnerable people” with “false hope that could really hurt them.”

“It needs to stop now,” she said.

The quality of his firm’s filings may have suffered by delegating them to contract lawyers with little to no prior experience in appellate law – including some in the Philippines earning just $10 an hour. The lone Spolin case reported by PLN was a loss at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2022. [See: PLN, Dec. 27, 2022, online.]

Soto’s family was fortunate to cross paths with a volunteer working to exonerate another man convicted in the same shooting case. Discovering deficiencies in the habeas petition prepared by Spolin, Jessica Jacobs Dirschel stepped in to provide guidance to Soto’s family on how to seek a refund. Ultimately, they managed to get most of their money back, according to a family friend who also worked on the case, Requel Decker.

“We gave it back because we did not want to trouble with these people who clearly seemed troublesome,” Spolin said.

Soto’s new attorneys, led by retired public defender Ellen J. Eggers, have presented new exonerating evidence in his case, including a recorded interview with a key trial witness that a diligent habeas attorney should have turned up, she says.

George Cardona, Chief Trial Counsel for the state bar, “has assigned an entire team of prosecutors and investigators to the matter” of the accusations against Spolin, according to one of the bar’s prosecutors, Akili Nickson. PLN reported Cardona’s successful effort to shut down an unlicensed legal service operated by a former prisoner. [See: PLN, Sep. 2022, p.61.]

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón said that none of the petitions Spolin’s firm filed for resentencing has succeeded there. Of the “hundreds” of other petitions Spolin filed for commutations from Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), the Los Angeles Times found none had been granted.

“A lot of us don’t know the law, a lot of us are vulnerable,” said Stephanie Charles, who paid Spolin’s $19,000 fee to free her brother from a prison sentence he is serving for a 2002 conviction for robbery and attempted carjacking. “We just want someone to help us solve the problem and not take advantage of us,” she said.

Source: Los Angeles Times