Two boys -- including the older brother of a 12-year-old girl killed in 1998 -- had their records formally cleared Tuesday when a judge ruled that they are factually innocent of the murder.
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Michael Crowe was 14 when he was arrested and charged with the stabbing death of his sister, Stephanie, at the family home in Escondido on Jan. 20, 1998. His friends, Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser, then both 15, were also charged in the killing.
Charges were eventually dropped against the three boys when a judge ruled that so-called "confessions" by Michael Crowe and Treadway were coerced. Transient Richard Tuite was charged with the murder and convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
Attorney Milton Silverman said Crowe, now 28, wanted the judicial finding to clear his name and record. Treadway joined in the motion for a finding of factual innocence.
Houser was not part of Silverman's motion, but the ruling by Superior Court Judge Kenneth So spoke to his factual innocence as well, said Gary Schons, a temporary expert professional and prosecutor with the District Attorney's Office.
"The effect of the ruling of the court today finding factual innocence is that all records of (the boys') arrests, prosecution and the like are eliminated from official sources," Schons said. "They don't have to say they were ever arrested, they don't have to comment on it and they now have an official court ruling that in fact, they are factually innocent beyond a reasonable doubt in connection with the killing of Stephanie Crowe."
Shannon Crowe, who was 10 when her sister was killed, said she was relieved that her brother, now 28, was found to be factually innocent of the crime.
"We've known he was innocent all along," Shannon Crowe said. "We're happy that it's finally on record with the court."
Schons said, "The case against the boys is the classic example of trying to pound a square peg into a round hole."
Michael Crowe confessed to killing his sister, but that confession was later ruled to have been coerced in harsh interrogations by Escondido police detectives and an Oceanside police officer assisting them.
Treadway's attorney, Mary Ellen Attridge, testified last month that Treadway told her his "confession" was false.
Attridge said prosecutors from the District Attorney's Office at one point offered to dismiss the charges against her client if he would testify against Michael Crowe, which Treadway said he would never do.
"Today was a historic day for the three young boys initially charged with the murder of Stephanie Crowe because Judge So found beyond a reasonable doubt that they are innocent of the murder of Stephanie Crowe, thus putting to rest the rumor in the community that persisted since 1998 that they were somehow involved." Attridge said outside court Tuesday. "I believe that this is an important step because they have been under this cloud of suspicion unnecessarily."
Michael Crowe's mother said from her home in Oregon that she worries whether the cloud that has hung over her son will really lift now.
"I'm just hopeful that the community as a whole will accept that he's innocent and always was," she said.
Michael Crowe now lives in Oregon, has started a family and now has a 2-month-old son.
Later, DNA evidence connected Tuite, a mentally ill transient now in his early 40s, to the murder scene. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to prison, but that conviction was overturned based on a trial error. Tuite's case is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The families of all three boys filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the cities of Escondido and Oceanside in 1999, claiming they were denied their rights against self-incrimination and false arrest. Key portions were thrown out by a judge in 2004 and 2005, but in 2010 a panel of judges with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal reinstated the bulk of the case.
Last October, the Crowe family settled the suit for $7.25 million.
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