|Though it sounds clichéd, Rick Walker considers himself a living lesson.
He is proof, he says, that the justice system is flawed — that white cops and prosecutors are not always the good guys and that black unemployed addicts from East Palo Alto are not always guilty. That bad choices and noxious relationships can trigger horrors beyond imagination. That humans are capable of wondrous generosity.
And, perhaps most importantly, his life shows that everyone, even those locked in prison or deluded by drugs, can take responsibility and change their lives.
In 1991, following a trial marred by lies, fear and apathy, Walker, then 35, was convicted of a murder he didn't commit.
Deemed a killer, he spent 12 years in some of California's roughest prisons, while his family worked tirelessly for his release, with the help of attorney Alison Tucher, a Palo Alto native, her parents, Tony and Carolyn Tucher, and several others. They knew he had not stabbed 34-year-old Lisa Hopewell and bound her in duct tape, leaving her bloody body in her Cupertino apartment on Jan. 10, 1991.
That had been done by Rahsson Bowers, a young East Palo Alto drug dealer, and Mark Swanson, who are both in prison today.
Walker's supporters accomplished the near-impossible: They convinced prosecutors and a judge that one man among thousands in California's prisons, convicted more than a decade earlier, was innocent.
And that the justice system had failed.
In June 2003, Walker was released, declared "factually innocent" by the court.
Two subsequent settlements have ensured he won't ever have to worry about money.
In September 2003, three months after his release, State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) helped Walker secure more than $400,000 as compensation from the state, and just last year, Walker received $2.75 million from a lawsuit against Santa Clara County.
After all that — enduring 12 years of prison, missing the growth of his son and the death of his father — he might be excused if he were furious and bent on revenge. Or if he were to return to a life of drugs, throw away the money and try to drink away the pain.
None of that has happened.
Today, Walker is a mechanic at Precision Automotive on Lambert Street in Palo Alto and the owner of two houses, one in East Palo Alto and another in Clear Lake in Lake County. He's pouring some of his money into projects at the houses.
He's also a first-time grandfather of a month-old baby girl and engaged to marry his live-in love, Yvette "Niki" Washington.
He has braces, is preparing for surgery to align his congenitally mismatched jaws and remains health conscious, eating lean meats and downing plenty of Arizona iced tea.
"I've been blessed. God has blessed me by surrounding me with great people and giving me a great adventure just going through life. I'm really enjoying things. I really am," Walker said.
And he isn't angry — now.
It was a different story in 1991. After he received a 26 years-to-life sentence for the brutal murder of Hopewell, a Princeton graduate turned crack addict and a former girlfriend, Walker said he was "mad as hell."
"I was pissed off at the world."
At the time, he was a freelance mechanic known as the "Troubleshooter" for his skill with cars. He was also what he calls "the worst kind of addict, a functioning addict."
Snared by the crack and cocaine that had enveloped East Palo Alto, Walker would fix cars all day, then kill his nights with drugs.
It wasn't supposed to be that way.
He had grown up in a close, middle-class family in San Francisco, one of seven children.
His father, William, worked in a slaughterhouse and drove trucks, playing drums with jazz bands in the evening. William had taught Rick how to fix cars and instructed him in carpentry, plumbing, electricity and other practical skills.
"I was the kid in the family that was inquisitive enough to want to learn those things," Walker said.
His mother, Myrtle Walker (a former East Palo Alto City Council member), had stressed the importance of education, yet Walker dropped out of high school just a few months before graduation.
"[My parents] were very disappointed," Walker said.
He went to work, earning enough money for his own apartment and a new car.
The years passed, and Walker followed his parents to East Palo Alto. He fathered a son, William, in 1979. He worked on cars, charmed ladies, did crack and got by.
And around 1990 — as drugs, violence and AIDS tore through East Palo Alto — he met Hopewell.
He met her on Camellia Drive, then a drug hotbed. The East Coast native — frequently clad in classy pumps and cashmere jackets — stood out like a "pink fire hydrant."
Intrigued, Walker offered to fix her car. Hopewell asked him to lunch.
"She invited me to her place in Cupertino. I went there. One thing led to another and pretty soon we were an item."
Walker, who was also seeing several other women, realized that Hopewell was in over her head.
"She started hanging with some real shady characters," he said — men who carried guns and used them.
"They'll find you in the trunk of somebody's car. I just wasn't with that."
Despite his drug habit, Walker had until then steered clear of jail — by knowing how to avoid trouble, he said.
"I'm not going to be the one to die. That's just how I operate. [If] I see something, I'd rather leave than be a witness to it. Witnesses are just the next person to die, if you think about the culture and where we were."
Yet one night, while driving Hopewell's car in East Palo Alto, Walker was pulled over and arrested because Hopewell had reported the car stolen, Walker said. She wanted to get her drugs that were stored in the vehicle, he said.
"When I was being booked in the police station, I said, 'I could just kill her for this, for putting me through this,'" Walker said. "A year later [after Hopewell was murdered] this officer remembered I had said that."
Bowers, who provided Hopewell with drugs, was arrested right away. His fingerprints were on the duct tape. Under pressure, he identified Walker from a photo and said that two white men were involved as well. Walker had occasionally worked on Bowers' car but didn't trust him, Walker said.
Hopewell "was playing him for the drugs. His friends knew and he didn't know it," Walker said. He theorizes that Bowers, a troubled boy who had become an angry, out-of-control man, fell for Hopewell but was rebuffed.
"Lisa didn't have any interest in him. He was just a tool. She would flirt and flatter people and get whatever she wanted," Walker said.
Bowers' story with the white accomplices didn't hold up under a polygraph test, but when he omitted the white men, saying it was just he and Walker — two black men — in Hopewell's apartment, police believed the story and saw no need to use the polygraph again, Walker said.
Swanson, the other murderer and an acquaintance of Bowers, left his DNA on a cigarette found at the crime scene. He was already in custody and was identified by other inmates, yet he wasn't charged until 2003.
In November 1991, pinned by Bowers' false testimony, Walker was convicted of first-degree murder. He was enraged.
He went to San Quentin, Folsom, Pelican Bay and Mule Creek prisons. He lost two appeals of his conviction and had to fight to have a letter labeling him a sexual predator removed from his record, a correction needed to remain unharmed by the other prisoners. And he was still mad.
"When I first went to visit, Rick was a very angry man," said Palo Altan Tony Tucher. Tucher befriended Walker after they met through his wife, Carolyn, a friend of Walker's mother, Myrtle. Tucher's daughter, Alison, became the lawyer who proved Walker's innocence.
By 1999, though, something inside Walker was starting to change.
"It was time for me to change my life or become sicker and sicker," Walker said.
He asked God to help him heal.
"I was just going to change my life, get in touch with who I am really and what my purpose is and what I'm supposed to do and not just go though life," he said.
For seven days, he ate nothing and drank only water.
"I said, 'God, why me?' and the answer I got was, 'Why not you? ... I know you are tough enough to handle this.'"
He began to realize the importance of teaching others about the justice system's failures and of the immense power within each individual.
And he recognized that anger only sears the person who is angry.
"I had a lot to give. I just didn't know how I was going to give it," Walker said.
He took self-help classes, learning how to control anger and boost his self-esteem. He practiced tai chi. He earned his GED and volunteered to tutor other inmates. (Nearly every prisoner can be inspired to read using either the Bible, a smut book or a Louis L'Amour Western novel, Walker said with a smile.)
And, he began giving away items — toothpaste, soap — that he had stashed to prepare for all-prison lockdowns.
"People who knew me in prison thought I was going crazy," Walker said. "In my faith, I had to believe that I was going home."
Through letters and visits, Tony Tucher watched Walker change.
"I witnessed this transformation. It was wonderful to see," Tucher said. "He's really put his life in order. In a way, he proved his freedom before he was released from prison."
"I said, 'Rick, you are a freer man in prison than most of us are out of prison,'" Tucher said.
So when Walker was released on June 9, 2003, he was ready.
It is now one of his mottos, one Walker likes to repeat: "If you stay ready, you don't have to get ready."
Tucher helped him secure a job at Precision Automotive, where owner Dennis Quinn gave him a chance even though Walker had been away from cars for more than 12 years. Walker now considers Quinn and Tucher among his closest friends.
And soon after his release, he became a caretaker for two nieces and a nephew. One niece, Ramika Evans, left Walker's home just weeks ago to begin school at Columbia University after graduating from Eastside College Preparatory School this spring.
And as the months and years pass, he has become increasingly aware that his 12-year ordeal hadn't been all bad.
"I couldn't say this before, but prison was a great learning experience for me," Walker said. "I think it's made me a much better person."
It rescued him, in a way, from the madness of East Palo Alto in the early 1990s.
"I'm blessed all the way around. All the different women I was messing with, I never came up with any diseases. I never got caught up in any gun play," Walker said. "Very few people survived that era."
"People say, 'You sacrificed a lot,' and I'm, like, 'Yeah, I did.' I sacrificed, but a lot of people benefited from the sacrifice. A lot of people got a better understanding of the system."
Walker believes he has been called to share about his experience.
"I've been through the fire, and I don't want anybody else to go through the fire I went through."
He speaks to groups regularly, at churches, schools and prisons and through the Northern California Innocence Project, based at Santa Clara University.
He's especially proud of a speech he gave in Fallon, Nev., during the last school year. Students from Churchill County High School had raised money to bring Walker and his fiancÈe, Washington, to Fallon.
He told Washington to take photos. But although she lives with Walker and has spent hundreds of hours talking with him, she was so enthralled by his speech she didn't take a single photo, Walker said.
No presentation is quite the same, he said.
"I ask God to give me the words to these specific people. Every single time it's a different speech," he said.
He returned to Mule Creek State Prison just months after he had been released.
"There are a lot of men in there in the same predicament that I was in. They just want to know what it took for me to overcome," Walker said.
"I want to go back to reassure them that with faith, with belief, with perseverance ... they, too, can have freedom. Maybe not outside of the prison that keeps them, but in their hearts and minds and soul they can have freedom. They can be at peace."
When he isn't speaking, Walker has plenty of other engagements.
"I almost have to have the arms of an octopus, but I'm managing," he said.
He plans to retire, marry Washington and move to Clear Lake, where he can fix cars — including his '55 Cadillac Fleetwood, '46 Chrysler Plymouth and '72 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible — to his heart's content.
"It's my turn. I get to enjoy life now."
• Good friends indeed — Palo Alto's Tucher family
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