Six men who were found guilty on June 4 of conspiracy to rob a bank and criminal street gang activity in San Luis Obispo have been called victims of a “modern-day lynching” by family members.
Shawn Quinney, Lionel Woods, Rodney Mitchell, Ronald Simpson, Damorial Lovely and Leonard Jones—dubbed the “Big Money Bandits” by local media—are Los Angeles natives facing various jail terms for their alleged involvement.
Woods, 34, and Mitchell, 38, are facing 30 years to life due to a third-strike conviction; Simpson, 20, faces up to 15 years with a strike on his record; Lovely, 28, faces up to 13 years; and Quinney, 20, faces up to 10 years as he has no criminal record.
Family members have stated the men have been falsely accused of a crime based on shaky evidence and they are victims of a prejudiced legal system.
Novelette Woods, the wife of Lionel Woods, said that they were extremely confident they would hear a verdict of not guilty but when they heard the opposite, their confidence turned into outrage and disappointment.
“I feel like I wanted to just lay there and die,” Woods said, the frustration mounting with every breath.
Woods has been an outspoken member of the families, spending much of her time to San Luis Obispo and keeping other family members informed if they miss a court date. She also kept notes from everything that has transpired while doing her best to get the word out.
Most of the families are religious and have relied on their faith to get them through the process. While the guilty verdict made them question why God is allowing this to happen, they said they are confident that justice will be served.
The facts are as follows: On December 13, 2007, eight men were arrested by close to 30 officers from the San Luis Obispo Police Department and other agencies, including the FBI.
In addition to their initial charges, the men were accused of being involved with 25 robberies over the past two years.
The men maintained their innocence, claiming that they had only met for the first time the day of the robbery. Lionel Woods had initially come to San Luis Obispo to do business for the clothing store he and his wife owned in Lancaster, along with Quinney,
Seven men were charged with conspiracy and all but one pleaded not guilty. Paul Goins pleaded no contest and on June 14, he was sentenced to three years’ probation and fined $620.
According to a letter Woods wrote, Goins made his plea after being interrogated 16 hours without a lawyer present and was coerced into signing a false confession or face 30 years in jail.
No weapon was ever produced as evidence and the limited evidence against them—a pillow case, respirator, bucket with water and one glove—led Woods and others to believe something greater was going on.
Their fears were realized several times, none perhaps more than when the prosecutor told a judge in preliminary hearings that the six men were gang members based on their appearance and despite having no evidence to prove their gang ties, the label stuck during the trial that they were all members of the Crips.
Woods said that of the six, four of them had never been in a gang before. Her husband Lionel and Rodney Mitchell were in fact gang members at a young age but have long since renounced their affiliation and devote their time to helping others avoid their similar path.
Another source of contention was the information provided by Karl Jones, a confidential informant who was the eighth person in the house when the men were arrested.
Jones was the source who told police that another robbery was going to take place after an earlier robbery occurred on November 21. After the December arrest, he provided information to lead investigator Ruff Griffin of the San Luis Obispo Police Department.
The defense claimed that Jones, who is an admitted drug user, planted evidence at the scene and the fact that he was paid $1,000 by an FBI official compromised his testimony.
Griffin was a former police officer in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division but his background was not questioned during the trial according to Woods and others who witnessed his testimony.
It is not the first time that the department’s tactics have been called into question. In 2003, the county settled for $2 million regarding claims of excessive force used to subdue a suspect that ultimately led to his death.
All of this has led the families of the men to believe that the six are victims of a modern-day lynching similar to case of the Jena Six from last year.
“They are trying to railroad us,” Woods said.
The accused have retained a new attorney who will file a motion for a new trial. It will postpone the sentencing for some time but the families are still in need of donations to raise funds.
The Woods’ church, City of Hope, has written letters while providing moral support to the family. And it is her hope that justice will be served on behalf of her husband and his defendants.
“Nothing but God is keeping me strong,” she said.