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The Morales investigator

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Posted: Friday, May 11, 2007 10:00 pm

When a woman pleaded guilty last week to forging jurors' and witnesses' names in an attempt to spare a local killer the death penalty, it brought an end to one aspect of the Michael Morales case.

He's still on death row for the 1981 killing of Tokay High School student Terri Lynn Winchell, as are several other California men whose cases also involved documents forged by the same woman.

But Kathleen Marie Culhane's guilty plea didn't resolve deeper questions.

Why would a law school graduate forge legal court documents? Why would she make up entire statements? Who is she?

Culhane declined an interview but her one public statement, along with court documents, letters, and comments from those who know her, reveal someone whose strong beliefs dictate her actions.

The well-spoken 40-year-old woman pleaded guilty April 30 to forgery and perjury. She agreed to a five-year term in state prison and, at the advice of her attorney, declined to speak further as her formal sentencing is not until Aug. 16.

Acquaintances say Culhane has always stood up for the underdog, whether it's someone spending life in prison or struggling for human rights in El Salvador.

"I can remember just being struck by her desire to know more about people who are more vulnerable, and what is going on in the world," said longtime family friend Mary Keelty. "She was very curious about what was happening, why it was happening and how we can make it better."

Teenage volunteer

The youngest child and only girl among her parents' five children, Culhane was born on the East Coast in January 1967 but spent most of her childhood in the Bay Area.

She entered San Rafael High School in 1981, took up Spanish and at the age of 15 and began volunteering as a Spanish-speaking interpreter with several organizations. She also volunteered in the emergency room at San Francisco General Hospital, according to papers filed in court by her attorney, Stuart Hanlon.

At age 16, she traveled to rural Mexico for several months to work as a public health worker. Her parents worried about letting her go to another country but she was so determined that they relented, Keelty said.

Culhane graduated from high school in 1985 and entered Macalester College, a small liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minn., that focuses on international and multicultural studies.

There she made a lifelong friend who, even though the two were separated by thousands of miles, asked Culhane to be a bridesmaid in her wedding last August. Julie Lindholm, now a teacher, wrote to the judge handling Culhane's criminal case, recalling how they met on a dormitory floor.

"We share a compassion for and interest in people that is reflected in both of our career choices," Lindholm wrote of Culhane, whom she called "Kath."

At age 19, Culhane left college and spent the next seven years in El Salvador, documenting human rights violations and accompanying American politicians to the country.

Three years into her work in El Salvador, Culhane met a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders and began a relationship with him, according to court papers her attorney filed when seeking bail. In 1992, after they had known each other for four years, the man was arrested during a student protest and killed in jail.

Culhane returned to the U.S. that year and went to Columbia College in New York, while also working with immigrants and a literacy project.

After graduating, Culhane entered St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas. There she was recognized for pro bono work from 1995 to 1998, and received a public interest award in May 1998 shortly before she graduated.

Culhane returned to the Bay Area and began working for the California Appellate Project, a State Bar program.

In 2001, she got a job with the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, which provides legal counsel for those on California's death row. The center, which was established in 1998 through state legislation, also recruits and train attorneys to represent defendants, as well as providing investigative help.

As early as 2002, according to prosecutors, Culhane was filing false documents on behalf of death row inmates. The forgeries went unnoticed because such appeals move slowly.

Suspicions arise

Things changed in early 2006 when Culhane submitted an 11-page document supposedly signed by a woman who had testified against Morales. In the affidavit, Stockton resident Patricia Felix recanted her trial testimony and apologized for "the lies the police made me tell."

According to prosecutors, Kathleen Culhane began forging documents in death penalty cases about a year after she began working for the Habeas Corpus Resource Center.
On Nov. 10, 2002, attorneys with the center filed a petition with the California Supreme Court on behalf of Vicente Figueroa Benavides.
The case was gruesome: A Kern County jury had convicted Benavides of the 1991 murder, rape and sodomy of a 21-month-old child. The jury gave him a death sentence.
Included in the court petition were signed statements Kathleen Culhane had gotten from two jurors saying they now supported Benavides.
It would take four years before the jurors ever learned their names had been signed on the documents, and they would deny making the statements.
A year after the Benavides appeal was filed, Culhane's work was included in a petition on behalf of Christian Monterroso, who was convicted of murdering two people and attempting to murder a third in 1991.
Monterroso's petition included statements from a childhood friend, three jurors, two Southern California court interpreters, a defense investigator and an immigration attorney, all supposedly supporting Monterroso.
In the meantime Culhane volunteered for two years with the United Nations Commission on Refuge/Columbia Disappearance Project.
On June 1, 2005, the HCRC filed a court petition on behalf of Jose Guerra, convicted of the 1990 rape and murder of a woman who shared Culhane's first name â€" Kathleen Powell.
Included in the petition were more signed declarations Culhane had received from people including Guerra's supervisor, a trial witness, a friend of the murder victim and the law enforcement officer who discovered the victim's body.
Those statements were also forged, and they were all discovered when San Joaquin County prosecutors questioned affidavits in the Michael Morales case. Jurors and a trial witness in that case denied talking to Culhane and signing papers, and the state began investigating all of Culhane's work.
As a result, the Habeas Corpus Resource Center voluntarily withdrew about 100 signed statements Culhane had submitted in various death penalty cases, though not all were forged.
"If it wasn't for Morales, we wouldn't have found all those other declarations," said Deputy Attorney General Michael P. Farrell, who prosecuted Culhane.
â€" News-Sentinel Staff Writer Layla Bohm.

San Joaquin County prosecutors were surprised, and they dispatched a district attorney investigator to talk to Felix. She denied signing Culhane's document.

Then six of the 12 jurors who had voted to send Morales to death row asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant him clemency.

Local investigators began checking out those statements, too. Like Felix, the jurors denied ever speaking with Culhane or signing such documents. Two pointed out that their names were misspelled.

On Nov. 16, 2006, California Department of Justice agents arrived at Culhane's third-floor apartment in San Francisco, search warrant in hand.

Her friends and family members began writing letters on her behalf.

"Kathleen has never run from difficulties. She won't run from this one," former colleague David Presson wrote in a letter dated Dec. 19, 2006.

"In all of her contacts with me she always expresses concern over the toll this situation has taken on her family and her friends," the Truckee man continued.

Prosecutors in February filed 45 felony charges against Culhane. Her parents posted their Petaluma home as bail collateral.

"We love her very much," her father, Joseph Culhane, said this week. "She's very intelligent and does what she thinks is right."

Explanation

Why Culhane filed false affidavits and forged names is likely only something she truly understands. After pleading guilty, she gave a brief statement to reporters outside the Sacramento County courthouse, saying she believes the death penalty is illegal.

"It is barbaric and an atrocity. Any acts I committed are out of a firm belief against the state killing these people," she said.

Keelty, the family friend, said Culhane always wanted to stand up for the vulnerable, and she was always questioning things she felt were wrong, including capital punishment.

"This whole issue is something that people need to be serious about and ask: What are we doing killing people?" Keelty said. "She's been asking questions all along �" and some hesitate to ask questions. For me, they are very important questions in the world."

From the beginning, prosecutors wanted a prison sentence for Culhane.

"Whatever your beliefs are, you can't be above the law," said Deputy Attorney General Michael P. Farrell, who prosecuted the case.

Culhane faced more than 18 years in prison if convicted, but the odds were low that she would actually get that much time for a non-violent crime, especially since she had no criminal record.

Even if the case had gone all the way through a jury trial to conviction on all counts, the sentence would have been up to the discretion of a judge �" who could choose a lengthy prison sentence or probation with no time behind bars, Farrell said.

Instead, Culhane pleaded guilty to four felony charges in exchange for five years in state prison.

Additionally, she waived all appellate rights, which Farrell noted means that the case has "finality," unlike the capital cases that go on for decades.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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2 comments:

  • posted at 12:50 pm on Fri, May 18, 2007.

    Posts:

    I can read the anger in your eyes.

     
  • posted at 7:42 am on Fri, May 18, 2007.

    Posts:

    jlawrenceendicott: RIGHT ON! WELL SAID!

     

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