SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — This week a San Francisco judge completely exonerated a man who pled guilty to rape and murder charges 46 years in order to avoid the death penalty, despite claiming innocence.

Zachary Vanderhorst, now 65, was cleared of his felony charges this week thanks to the efforts of his attorneys — Rebecca Young of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and Patrick Murray of Keker, Van Nest & Peters — who uncovered evidence and witnesses that proved Vanderhorst’s innocence. The judge exonerated him due to conditions outlined in the state’s reformed felony murder law, passed in 2018.

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“Don’t ever plead guilty to something you didn’t do, no matter what your lawyer tells you. You will never be able to undo that plea and you will regret it deeply,” said Vanderhorst.

Vanderhorst received his sentence in 1974 after he was arrested for participating in a burglary at a Fell Street residence with an underaged accomplice. While Vanderhorst worked to steal a television from the living, the accomplice murdered a resident in another room.

Zachary Vanderhorst (left) the week he was released from prison in February 2020, after his attorneys Rebecca Young of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office (center) and Patrick Murray of Keker, Van Nest and Peters (right) worked to overturn his felony murder conviction from 1974. (Richard Bui/San Francisco Public Defender’s Office)

Despite not knowing about what his accomplice was doing, under the previous state felony murder law, Vanderhorst was still considered an accessory and was charged with first-degree murder. He faced the death penalty. On top of that, he was charged with rape for an incident that occurred at another burglary he assisted, without his knowledge.

At the time his public defenders urged Vanderhorst to plead guilty to the murder rather than go to trial. But the plea came with other charges, including a slate of other unsolved burglary charges and a rape charge, despite Mr. Vanderhorst’s claims of innocence and a lack of evidence tying him to those other crimes. Making matters worse, his public defenders avoided interviewing a single witness or victim, nor did they question the police misconduct during the lineup. His attorneys didn’t even pursue an alibi.

Vanderhorst’s current attorneys also learned that the private attorney for the underage co-defendant was at these negotiations in the judge’s chambers, urging Vanderhorst to plead guilty with the promise that if he took the deal, he would be paroled in seven to ten years.

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“It’s unconscionable that lawyers could plead a young impoverished man to crimes as serious as rape and burglary when their client didn’t match the suspect description and when police had no forensic or physical evidence tying him to the crimes,” said Young. “This case illustrates why the reforms we have struggled to achieve in the last few years, particularly reform to the felony murder rule, have been essential to correcting past injustices.”

After being imprisoned, Vanderhorst faced the parole board 18 times — the last time in 2018 — but was never granted parole. This was despite confessing to the burglary charges and accounts from a San Francisco police inspector confirming Vanderhorst’s innocence in the other crimes. The board continually rejected his requests for parole on the grounds that Vanderhorst “lacked insight” into his crimes.

“People who work in the criminal legal system want to believe that a conviction is valid despite evidence to the contrary. When Zachary was shipped off to prison at age 19 for crimes he didn’t commit, for a murder he took no part in, the public defenders, the DA and the judge never looked back one time despite glaring evidentiary inconsistencies, police misconduct and gross legal misadvisements; and when he reached out to them over the years, they turned a deaf ear,” said Young.

Vanderhorst received another chance in 2018 when Young and other members of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office helped pass California Senate Bill 1437. Authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, SB1437 revised the felony murder rule to require that the defendant must have been a major participant in the murder and have acted with an intent to kill in order to be charged with murder.

When the bill went into effect the next year, Young was assigned to Vanderhorst’s case, and her office tapped Keker, Van Nest & Peters to help. After working for three years together, interviewing witnesses and going through documents, the team made the case that not only was Vanderhorst not involved with the murder, the original investigation and conviction were wrought with police incompetence and malfeasance. Vanderhorst’s murder conviction was overturned in January 2020 and he was freed from prison after spending the majority of his life there.

Until this week, Vanderhorst still had the rape charge on his record, which would’ve required him to register as a sex offender, but witness testimony and other evidence resulted in the charge being lifted.

“This case illustrates why the reforms we have struggled to achieve in the last few years, particularly reform to the felony murder rule, have been essential to correcting past injustices, and I am grateful to my co-counsel who deeply understood how racial bias impacted what happened to Zachary and was firmly committed to overturning these wrongful convictions,” Young said.

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“The remarkable efforts made to overturn these convictions reminds us of the dire need for the resources to expand post-conviction work and help heal from state violence and racial injustice. We know that there are thousands of people, just like Zachary Vanderhorst, along with his family, who continue to suffer the trauma and loss that stem from wrongful convictions, bad plea deals, and excessive punishment. Public defenders and our allies are willing and capable of challenging those convictions if provided the resources,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju.