Bakersfield -- A judge threw out the child molestation conviction of a man who spent 20 years in prison, siding Friday with the defense after most of the alleged victims claimed the assaults never happened.
John Stoll, now 60, was convicted in 1985 on 17 counts of child molestation. Attorneys for two Innocence Project chapters in California have worked for his freedom, claiming authorities coerced false testimony from the victims, who were 6 to 8 years old at the time.
Stoll was convicted of assaulting six children in a crime ring that allegedly included sodomy, group sex and pornographic photography.
Prosecutors presented no physical evidence at the original trial. None of the children were ever examined by doctors, even though some of the allegations included forcible sodomy. The case rested on testimony alone.
Four of Stoll's accusers, now adults, testified in January they were manipulated by investigators who dogged them for hours until they fabricated the stories. A fifth witness testified he has no memories from that part of his childhood.
"The petitioner has met the burden of showing that the interview techniques ... resulted in unreliable testimony from child witnesses," Kern County Superior Court Judge John Kelly said.
Seated at the defense table in his brown jail clothes, Stoll dropped his head and let out a heavy sigh as the judge read his ruling.
Stoll will remain in custody until a May 4 hearing to determine when he will be released.
"You win some, you lose some," said Deputy District Attorney Lisa Green. She said prosecutors would not seek a retrial.
Stoll claims he was swept up in a wave of hysteria that washed over the nation in the 1980s and led to the trials of hundreds of people. Many later had their convictions overturned for reasons including prosecutorial misconduct and coercive interview techniques now believed to produce false statements from children.
In Bakersfield, 46 people were arrested in eight alleged molestation rings. Thirty were convicted, eight had their charges dropped and eight struck plea deals that kept them out of prison.
Twenty-two of those convictions were later reversed for reasons including legal technicalities, prosecutorial misconduct or faulty jury instructions.
The rest served out their sentences. One died in prison.
Some, but not all, were vindicated.
Even so, Kern County authorities clearly overstepped their boundaries, according to a scathing state attorney general's office report in 1986.
The report cited flawed interview techniques and said Kern County deputies were improperly trained to handle molestation cases. Although the state report did not cite Stoll's case, it criticized the techniques used by the same lead investigators.
Green said she's disappointed with the ruling because authorities still believe Stoll is guilty, even though two of his co-defendants had their convictions overturned on legal technicalities, and the county agreed to pay $4.2 million last year to people vindicated in other cases.
"He's served almost all of his time," Green said. "I think it would be nothing more than vindictive if we did" refile charges.
Stoll is the last of his co-defendants in prison. Though he would have been up for parole next year, a release without vindication could have sent him to the state's hospital for sex offenders indefinitely. Now, he will not have to register as a sex offender upon his release.
"It's just amazing. You work on these cases for years and it comes down to one second," said one of Stoll's attorneys, Justin Brooks, who directs the Innocence Project chapter at California Western School of Law.
"And what's important here is, it doesn't just affect John Stoll's case. It's really an indictment on the entire system here and how they process these cases," Brooks said. "I think we'll be back in Bakersfield."
Prosecutors had hoped to keep Stoll in jail based on the testimony of his son, Jed Stoll, who still insists his father molested him.
"I want to make sure he can't get out and hurt anyone else," Jed Stoll said under questioning earlier this year.
Stoll blames his son's position on a bitter custody dispute, saying his ex-wife had filled Jed's head with lies.
Complicating matters further, a convicted child molester, Grant Self, was renting Stoll's pool house when the investigation began in 1984. Stoll claims he had no knowledge of Self's past.
Paroled in 2000, Self was committed as a sexually violent predator to Atascadero State Hospital.
"I was guilty of stupidity in the past. No one cared about the truth this time," Self told The Associated Press in a phone interview, adding that none of the defendants had committed any crimes.
Eddie Sampley was 7 when, he says, he falsely testified against Stoll. He attended Friday's hearing and said the ruling lifted a heavy burden of guilt.
"I'm feeling great, top of the world," Sampley said outside court. "It's been long enough. You cry loud enough and long enough and somebody's got to hear you. I just feel a lot lighter now. I just hope he can enjoy the rest of his years."