Lives On Hold: Decades of Death Penalty Appeals Hold a PaliHi Graduate’s Life in Limbo—And With It, So Many Others

By MATTHEW MEYER | Reporter

More than two decades ago, James Robinson Jr. was sentenced to death for the murder of two young men in a Subway sandwich shop in Northridge. He was 25 years old.

The shop today
Photo courtesy of Google Earth

He’s 48 now, alive by the virtue of an unambiguously deliberate legal process, seated in a wood-paneled courtroom before a stern-faced judge.

Robinson in PaliHi’s yearbook, 1987
Photo courtesy of PaliHi

His short afro is gray and his face and body have rounded with age, but his thin-rimmed glasses and expressive eyebrows are the same he possessed through a near-decade of schooling in Pacific Palisades.

That was before the decades of darkness that followed.

Before 20-plus years of legal appeals.

In California, all death penalty sentences are subject to automatic appeal to the state’s Supreme Court. Sentenced in 1994, Robinson’s first appeal didn’t conclude until 2005. The court upheld his conviction unanimously.

Then the case caught the attention of a firm called Pillsbury Law, traditionally associated with industrial litigation. But their pro-bono department perceived flaws in Robinson’s trial.

Their lawyers investigated for two years before filing what’s called a “habeas corpus” appeal, challenging the first ruling on the basis of jury misconduct.

It sat for seven years. North of San Francisco, on San Quentin State Prison’s infamous death row, Robinson waited.

So did Shannon Anderson and Steve Berry.

They are the twin sister and father of Brian Berry, an 18-year-old who Robinson is convicted of killing, along with Brian’s childhood friend, James “Jimmy” White, on June 30, 1991.

Victim: Brian Berry
Photo courtesy of Shannon Anderson

 

Victim: James White
Photo courtesy of Deborah Massarella

Today, as they have for the past year, Anderson and Berry sit side-by-side in the courtroom gallery behind Robinson and his counsel from Pillsbury, Thomas Loran III.

Once or twice a month, they make their way across the city to Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center downtown. They crowd into the building’s column of massive elevators and then walk to the end of the hall, entering a now-familiar courtroom.

White, left, and Anderson
Photo courtesy of Shannon Anderson

There, Loran and Deputy District Attorney Brian Kelberg—familiar for his colorful prosecution in the OJ Simpson case, and tasked with keeping Robinson’s fate sealed—are unstacking boxes of decades-old documents, rolled in unceremoniously on carts.

Anderson and Berry take their seats. And they wait.

They sat and waited through the original case of the early ’90s and the appeals of the early ’00s. And after seven years of quiet, when a habeas corpus appeal made the conduct of Robinson’s very first jury a question for the courtroom of 2016, they returned.

“If we’ve been invited, and we know about it, and it’s open to the public then we’re there,” Anderson told the Palisadian-Post.

“If the judge didn’t see us … then I feel like that sways. I feel like [then] Brian and Jimmy aren’t real people. And the realness of the fact that they were people gets lost in the fact that James Robinson is sitting there at the table.”

Anderson’s mother, Teri, would be there if she could. She passed away 11 years ago.

Anderson said she died an angry woman—an anguished, passionate mother, mentally locked in a fight for her son.

Already afforded an extra decade of healing, Anderson feels confident that she and her father can avoid doing the same.

But for as long as Robinson sits in a courtroom, they will too.

Behind them sits another mother in anguish, Vesta Robinson.

She remains convinced of her son’s innocence.

Vesta believes he was framed by two so-called friends, Tai Williams and Tommy Aldridge, who testified against James in the original trial.

She told the Post that, growing up with two sisters, James was always looking for a brother, and that he fell under the sway of these two “gangsters.”

She said James was never loud, boisterous or braggadocios. She said she raised him Christian, that he sang in the choir, that he was always a young gentleman.

She told the Post the story of her move from Indiana to California as a divorced mother following a government job, how she bought a house in Compton and realized quickly she had to leave. About the move to Baldwin Hills, where she wasn’t satisfied with the public education.

That’s how James ended up attending school in Pacific Palisades, Vesta said—she pulled the kids out of school and told the city they wouldn’t be returning.

She eventually negotiated to have James sent to Marquez Charter Elementary School each day. He stayed in the Palisades for school, graduating from Palisades High School: “They loved him there.”

Nowadays, she corresponds with James through letters. She doesn’t visit him when he’s in Los Angeles, she said, because she doesn’t want the county jail to have her contact information. She asked the Post to correspond with her via letters to a P.O. box.

San Quentin State Prison
Photo courtesy of KPCC

 

Jim and Kathy Wakeman visit Robinson in 2008
Photo courtesy of Mary Redclay

 

Robinson, right, and a visitor in 2008
Photo courtesy of Mary Redclay

In her 70s now, Vesta sometimes gets lost in her thoughts, transferring stories rapidly.

She wrote a letter to Anderson and Berry once, passed over by a lawyer. She asked them to believe that her son didn’t do this. She asked them not to hate her.

“We’ve never hated her, I don’t blame her,” Anderson told the Post. But the question of Robinson’s innocence is not open for discussion: “We hold him responsible.”

The ripples of Robinson’s case reach far beyond the Clara Shortridge regulars.

White’s mother, Kristine, was heavily involved in the cases until she died in 2013 from cancer, though her sister, Deborah Massarella, told the Post that she believes, “to a certain degree, she died of a broken heart.”

Massarella has visited court for the most recent appeals twice—she would go more often if she could, but it’s impossible to miss more work. White’s two sisters, just young girls when they lost their brother, recently sat in on a hearing for the first time.

“It just consumes your thoughts,” Massarella said of re-visiting the decades old heartbreak. “We’re drug through this. Re-living it.”

She mused that White would still be in the prime of his life, maybe married with kids. She thinks he’d make a great father.

Massarella laughed remembering a time that White scrambled through a tiny crawl space to rescue a litter of kittens, born in his family’s attic: “He had a heart of gold.”

She goes back and forth on whether everything would have been easier had Robinson received life without parole. She’s positive of his guilt, pointing to the jury of 12 that convicted him all those years ago.

The appeals, she said, are just “a terrible thing to do to the people involved.”

Jim Wakeman, a former PaliHi teacher, speaks with Robinson on the phone once or twice a week. When a lawyer contacted him for the original trial, he remembered his former pupil right away.

The two talk about the latest court proceedings; Wakeman believes in Robinson’s innocence, unequivocally.

But, mainly, they chat like old friends. They talk about the latest news, and Wakeman gives Robinson updates on the Dodgers—a passion shared—and the Raiders.

There’s Mary Redclay, another former teacher of Robinson’s. Letters and photos from their correspondence spill out of folders in every direction, a jumble of years and topics.

Redclay said many of her students became pen pals of Robinson’s. Decades and miles apart, he advised them on everything from boys to avoiding violence.

And, of course, there’s the parade of former jurors, yanked back into the courtroom some 25 years later, questioned about a case that feels like ancient history—one they were only involved with by happenstance.

Many of the witnesses aren’t former jurors at all—just old friends or neighbors of someone who received a jury summons in the mail more than two decades ago.

They sit uncomfortably and answer maybe five minutes of questions, then shuffle off the stand, down the hallway, and back to their lives.

At the epicenter of it all, Robinson sits and waits.

Part two of the Post‘s “Lives on Hold” series will appear in Pali Life next week.