This is part 3 of a multi part story on the possible wrong conviction of Oscar Clifton in the murder of Donna Jo Richmond.
A spokesperson for the state Office of the Attorney General said an internal investigation has affirmed the deputy AG assigned to supervise a review of the 1976 murder conviction of Oscar Clifton held no conflict of interest when he performed his job.
Deputy AG’s father worked for local DA
While acting as one of two supervising deputy AGs tasked with reviewing the Tulare County District Attorney’s conviction integrity review (CIR), Clifford Edward Zall apparently discussed the case at length with his father, Harvey Zall, a former Tulare County deputy DA. The revelation is yet another in a string of alleged indiscretions and felony crimes on the part of authorities committed during the Donna Jo Richmond murder investigation and subsequent conviction of Clifton that are detailed in 12/26/75 TWELVE · TWENTY-SIX · SEVENTY-FIVE, a recently released book by attorney and private detective Tony Reid.
The AG’s denial was terse and followed a lengthy email exchange. Their spokesperson offered the following statement:
“We’re aware of the matter and the claim that there was a conflict of interest is inaccurate. In addition, our review was directly overseen by two separate supervisors. Beyond that, we don’t have anything further to add at this point in time.”
The Valley Voice requested documentation from the AG’s office regarding its internal investigation of Clifford Zall. The request is pending at the time of publication.
Breach of Ethics
Zall’s possibly improper interaction father and his failure to disclose a familial relationship with a former TCDA employee, Reid maintains, constitutes a breach of ethics that further complicates a case in which the facts have been muddied by time and prosecutorial misconduct.
“This is not just a theoretical issue,” Reid said. “This is a direct problem that involves that individual (Clifford Zall).”
Zall’s father, Harvey Zall, worked as a deputy district attorney in Tulare County at the time Clifton was prosecuted. While the trial was underway, the young attorney changed jobs, switching to a position with the Office of the Tulare County Public Defender. Later, the elder Zall worked at the Office of the State Public Defender at the time that office was involved with appeals of Clifton’s conviction. Harvey Zall, Reid said, would later surrender his license to practice law following a finding by the State Bar in an unrelated matter that required him to retake the portion of the bar exam dealing with professional ethics in order to continue to practice.
This chain of events, according to Reid, should have caused Clifford Zall to recuse himself from any involvement in overseeing the Clifton CIR to avoid the possible appearance of conflict.
“Instead, what he does is goes and asks his dad about material facts in the case,” Reid said.
Further, it was only after Reid discovered the father-son connection Clifford Zall acknowledged his father’s past involvement and that the pair had discussed the facts of the Clifton CIR. Reid said Clifford Zall made the admission in writing and only then offered to recuse himself. The professional code of conduct requires full and immediate disclosure of any such conflict.
It was at approximately the same time Zall called Reid to say he had changed his opinion regarding the CIR and now supported it as a valid review of the facts in the Clifton case. Previously, according to Reid, Clifford Zall had been very open to reviewing documentation – including a full court-conformed transcript of Clifton’s trial – the Tulare County DA maintained no longer existed but was in Reid’s possession.
“That’s when the alarm bells went off,” Reid said.
Zall Fired from DA’s Office
Harvey Zall did not work directly on the Clifton case while employed by Tulare County, which lends credence to the idea there was no conflict of interest while his son worked on the Clifton CIR. However, because of the limited information provided by the AG’s office, it is unclear if its investigators understand the depth of the animosity that apparently existed between Harvey Zall and former Tulare County District Attorney Jay Powell. Powell conducted the prosecution of Clifton personally.
According to a report by the Los Angeles Times published on February 9, 1989, DA Powell told the Senate Rules Committee, which was holding hearings to affirm Harvey Zall’s appointment as state public defender by Gov. George Duekmejian, he had fired Zall from his job as a deputy district attorney.
Zall said his firing came after he and Powell “had a falling out,” the Times reported. Zall would later withdraw his nomination before the confirmation process was complete. Those who Zall said supported his bid for the job now regretted the action, according to the story, and many of the attorneys Zall would oversee threatened to resign if he were hired. Zall was acting interim state public defender when he was nominated to take over the position permanently.
Failure by the AG’s office to treat the possibility of a conflict on Clifford Zall’s part calls the integrity of the AG’s review of the CIR into question.
“We can’t just ignore material information,” Reid said. “For them to ignore the conflict of interest and the evidence… It’s an error wrapped in an error. It’s a turducken of errors.”
AG Prevented Independent Review
Zall’s relationship to personnel working for Tulare County at the time of Clifton’s prosecution is not the only likely conflict of interest that still exists in the Office of the Tulare County District Attorney, Reid maintains. Individuals currently working for DA Tim Ward are related to or are friends with the officials Reid said abused their power in 1976 to frame Clifton for Richmond’s murder.
“In Mr. Clifton’s case, the prosecutors and sheriff’s investigators who committed the misconduct were close friends and family members of the current DA’s staff,” Reid wrote. “We argued that given those relationships, and the fact that the new suspect (convicted Golden State Killer Joe DeAngelo) had been a local police sergeant who used his badge and authority to commit two uncharged homicides, an independent DOJ investigation was necessary. Deputy Zall did not agree, and assigned the review to Tulare DA Tim Ward.”
That statement is part of a four-page document assembled by Reid that details the alleged shortcomings of the CIR, shortcomings that Clifford Zall is alleged to have knowingly allowed. According to Reid, Zall allowed Ward’s office to exclude evidence it knew would undermine the original conviction. Further, Ward and his staff intentionally misrepresented DNA evidence they say excludes the possibility Golden State Killer Joe DeAngelo killed Richmond.
“There’s only one critical issue,” Reid said. “If you look at the 2011 DNA that supposedly exonerated DeAngelo, there’s no semen there.”
A forensics report regarding the DNA said no scientifically significant statements could be made about the sample and that the reagent used to test it was contaminated. At the time of Richmond’s murder, DeAngelo was working as a sergeant for the Exeter Police Department. Richmond’s body was discovered near the Exeter city limits.
Reid has assembled a 66-page list of questions regarding the details of the assembly of the CIR he says will clarify how the CIR was composed, however, it is unlikely the AG’s office will conduct such a review of Zall’s involvement given their most recent statement.
Still, Reid wants answers.
“Although settling these questions will not fix Mr. Clifton’s wrongful conviction or hold Mr. DeAngelo responsible for the Exeter homicides, it will establish exactly what did happen, what should have happened, and hopefully set a standard for future similar claims of actual innocence going forward,” Reid wrote.
Too Quick a Conclusion from AG
Importantly, Reid believes Zall’s letter declaring the CIR valid and declining further review followed so swiftly after the CIR’s release Zall could not have reviewed it thoroughly.
“It was issued one day after the Tulare CIR. It was probably done the same day,” Reid said. “On the face of it, it suggests he spent very little time looking at it.”
Clifton’s supporters, Reid said, had no opportunity to provide the evidence he’s sure exonerates Clifton.
“Everything was patted down, sealed and mailed before he had even requested one document that would have shown there are lies,” Reid said. “There is a mountain of evidence here, and you’ve (the AG) just refused to look at it.”
Reid said Zall’s letter was issued prematurely, violating his responsibilities while acting in a capacity as a de facto state prosecutor. His actions prohibited a fair review of the evidence against Clifton, Reid claims. Rather than declaring the matter closed, Zall should have initiated a new investigation following disclosure of all available evidence, especially that evidence Reid said makes clear Clifton could not have murdered Richmond.
“That was really the first time there was any opportunity to say here is this mountain of documents,” he said.
The AG and the Tulare County DA still have incomplete records, Reid said.
Part of the reason the county’s records of the Clifton case are incomplete is Tulare County Sheriff detective Robert Byrd, who Reid claims played a key role in framing Clifton, destroyed the records before the appeals process had been completed, Reid said. This has led Reid to speculate on whether Harvey Zall, while working as the state public defender, was involved in scrubbing the record.
“Did Harvey Zall OK Byrd destroying evidence from the case?” Reid said.
DA Says It Doesn’t Matter
According to deputy DA David Alavezos, who was speaking during a previous interview about the Clifton CIR, any further review of “new physical evidence,” which he said doesn’t exist, would be pointless, as “everyone involved is dead or has moved on.”
Overturning Clifton’s conviction, however, would have significant repercussions. Because Clifton, who died in state custody in 2013, spent nearly four decades behind bars, his widow would be entitled to $2.2 million in compensation for the wrongful conviction. Further, Clifton, an honorably discharged veteran of the US military, has been denied a military burial and his death benefit has been withheld.
Clifton’s adult children and other relatives still live in the county, as do many of Richmond’s friends and family.
Reid also believes DeAngelo may have committed another murder, that of 15-year-old Jennifer Armour, who disappeared in Visalia on the night of November 15, 1974. That case, Reid said, has striking similarities to the Richmond case. Armour’s body was discovered just 1.5 miles from the location where Richmond’s body would later be found. A reexamination of the evidence against Clifton could clarify how Armour died, Reid said.
In public presentations Ward made regarding DeAngelo’s convictions, which Reid describes as “a victory, feel-good lap,” Reid said Ward admitted knowing the DNA evidence used to exclude DeAngelo as Richmond’s killer did not support the conclusion of the CIR, but the fact was of no consequence. Reid described one of Ward’s talks:
“The first was when it comes to this issue of whether or not Joe DeAngelo killed Donna Jo Richmond,” Reid said. “He went through his regular spiel. He said he knows there’s an issue about the nature of the semen. He said it doesn’t matter.”
Golden State Killer May Have Confessed
Further, Reid said Ward discounts any statement from DeAngelo, a conclusion based on the fact DeAngelo appeared in court in a wheelchair but was later recorded being physically active in his cell.
This is a significant issue, as DeAngelo has confessed to crimes for which he has not been prosecuted. A seven-hour interview with DeAngelo was recorded immediately after his arrest. Reid said one of the crimes DeAngelo described but which was not subsequently investigated could be the killing of Richmond.
“One of those descriptions is extremely compelling for this matter,” Reid said. “The officer who conducted the interview said, ‘By the time the interview was over, he was confessing to everything. We stopped him because we didn’t think he could have done all those things.'”
So far, no one has asked DeAngelo directly if he killed Richmond. Reid thinks the state is holding back on revealing all DeAngelo’s crimes.
“I believe they know there are other things they know should be prosecuted,” he said.
That includes the murders of Richmond and Armour.
The justice community, Reid believes, is trying to preserve public confidence by hiding the extent of its failures in stopping DeAngelo’s years-long crime spree. He believes those in authority are simply embarrassed by the apparent incompetence of their predecessors.
“Is it the blue line, or is that he murdered 12 additional people?” Reid said. “Could he have been stopped?”