Man freed after 38 years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit

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Wave Staff and Wire Reports

LOS ANGELES — A man who served 38 years in prison for the 1983 abduction and killing of a woman in Inglewood is a free man after newly tested DNA evidence exonerated him of the crime and identified a different person as the culprit in the slaying.

“I’m not pointing fingers. I’m not standing up here a bitter man,” Maurice Hastings, 69, said during a downtown Los Angeles news conference Oct. 28. “But I just want to enjoy my life while I have it. And I just want to move forward.”

Working in conjunction with the Los Angeles Innocence Project at Cal State Los Angeles, the District Attorney’s Office filed a motion to vacate Hastings’ 1988 conviction for the abduction, sexual assault and slaying of 30-year-old Roberta Wydermyer, and the attempted murder of Wydermyer’s husband, Billy Ray, and his friend George Pinson.

District Attorney George Gascón said Hastings consistently proclaimed his innocence, and recent DNA tests proved him right.

“We no longer have any confidence in the veracity of the case against Mr. Hastings,” Gascón said.

He said the DNA testing pointed to a different person in the kidnapping, sexual assault and killing of Wydermyer. The true killer, he said, died in 2020 while serving prison time for a separate kidnapping and rape.

Gascón credited Hastings for his perseverance in “trying to get this office to investigate your case.”

“You are a free man today because of your perseverance,” Gascón said.

He apologized to Hastings that the DNA evidence was not available at the time to prevent his conviction and prison sentence.

“The system failed you,” he said. “The system failed the victims.”

“Mr. Hastings has steadfastly maintained his innocence since his arrest in 1984,” said Paula Mitchell, director of the Los Angeles Innocence Project at Cal State L.A. “He has demonstrated immense resilience and grace in the face of this horrific and manifest injustice. After so much has been taken from him, Mr. Hastings can now clear his name and finally walk free.”

Gascón, Mitchell and actor Mike Farrell, an anti-death penalty advocate, spoke during the Oct. 28 news conference, underscoring the importance of fighting to correct wrongful convictions and highlighting the case as an example of the profound problems associated with the death penalty.

Wydermyer had made a late-night trip to a market in Inglewood, but she never returned home. Authorities at the time said her assailant stole her cash and jewelry, assaulted her and then shot her in the head. Her body was then placed in the trunk of her car, which the assailant took.

After his wife failed to come home, Wydermyer’s husband and Pinson went out looking for her, and they spotted her stolen vehicle being driven by the suspect. The assailant sped away, but the duo pursued him, authorities said. The suspect eventually fired shots toward the pursuing pair, with Billy Ray Wydermyer suffering a shrapnel wound.

Hastings was arrested months later. His initial trial ended with a hung jury. But he was convicted in his second trial. Although he faced a possible death sentence, jurors recommended instead that he be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The case against Hastings, who grew up in Compton, was entirely circumstantial, lacking any physical evidence tying him to the crime. Numerous alibi witnesses testified that Hastings attended a party in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles the night the crime was committed, and that he did not leave the party until 3 or 4 a.m.

“Unfortunately, this is not a unique case,” Innocence Project staff attorney Ayesha Hussain said. “Unreliable eyewitness identifications, faulty forensics and overzealous prosecutorial tactics impact the vast majority of the cases we review. These are hallmarks of the criminal legal system — not exceptions and not enough is being done to correct these errors and prevent them from happening again.”

“This case demonstrates the irreversible dangers of the death penalty,” said another Innocence Project staff attorney, Eliza Haney. “Had Mr. Hastings been sentenced to death, he may well have been executed before this DNA evidence came to light.

“The number of innocent people in prison in the United States is estimated to be in the tens to hundreds of thousands, and the unfortunate truth is that the criminal legal system simply is not as accurate or reliable as we believe it to be. We must have greater transparency in criminal investigations, higher standards for the evidence presented in criminal trials and greater accountability for prosecutors and law enforcement officials.”

Mitchell and her team of post-conviction attorneys were first connected to Hastings by a former client who was wrongfully convicted, Andrew Wilson. As the founding donor of Los Angeles Innocence Project, Wilson said he is proud to support the work that has gained Hastings his freedom.

Before he was released from prison in 2017, Wilson befriended Hastings and learned of Hastings’ commitment to proving his innocence. They worked together for years in the prison laundry.

“Just to see him home,” Wilson said, looking across the room at Hastings in the media room at the Hall of Justice as tears welled up in his eyes. “That means the world to me.”

Hastings thanked everyone who believed in him and prayed for him while he was imprisoned, including his mother, who died in June before she could see him exonerated.

 

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