James Preston

Los Angeles County, California
Date of Crime:  October 18, 1924

James W. Preston was convicted of robbing a Los Angeles widow and shooting her when she tried to escape.  The victim, Mrs. Dick R. Parsons lived at 906 W. 50th St.  The perpetrator had entered through a first floor window, and on the dust of the screen, fingerprints were found.  Preston was arrested on a minor charge a few days after the crime.  His fingerprints were compared with those found on the screen, but did not match.  For some reason, however, the Los Angeles newspapers carried stories stating that Preston had been identified as Mrs. Parsons' assailant through the fingerprints.  The source of this misinformation could not be determined.

Mrs. Parsons read these accounts, and when Preston was brought to her bedside she identified him as the man who had shot her, claiming she saw in him the eyes of the masked robber. She also assured the police that Preston's voice, which was admittedly a peculiar one, was the same as the voice that had ordered her to “stick 'em up.”

Prior to trial the prosecutor must have been very doubtful of his case, because he kept offering plea deals that became more and more generous.  On the third try, he offered to drop all charges if Preston would plead guilty to simple assault, which carried a maximum sentence of 6 months.  Preston replied, “I didn't do it, and I will not plead guilty to anything.”

At trial, the prosecution withheld fingerprint evidence.  Preston had an alibi witness who placed him 22 miles away in Long Beach at the time of the crime.  He also testified in his own defense.  The jury convicted him of robbery, burglary, and assault, but not of assault with intent to murder.  At sentencing the judge appeared to believe that fingerprints found at the crime scene matched those of Preston, though the evidence was not brought up at trial.  Perhaps the judge had read and believed the newspaper stories.  The judge cross-examined Preston at sentencing, mentioned the fingerprint evidence, and seemed incredulous that Preston refused to admit his guilt.  The judge sentenced Preston on each of the three charges ranging from 11 years to life, to be served consecutively.

In May 1926, a match was found from the crime scene fingerprints to a suspect arrested for other burglaries.  While being questioned by the police, the suspect expressed contempt for fingerprint identification and said:  “Listen! If I told what I knew about fingerprints an innocent man would be released from San Quentin tomorrow.”  In Sept. 1926, following the suspect's conviction for the Parsons' crime, Governor Richardson granted Preston a full pardon.  [11/07]

Reference:  Convicting the Innocent

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Los Angeles Cases, False Fingerprint Evidence, Masked Assailant ID