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    Wrongly convicted, they ‘lost hope’ after 17 years in prison. Then an OC mom helped prove their innocence
    • October 20, 2023

    They seemed destined to die in prison, but two men serving life sentences were set free because the daughter of a Laguna Beach lawyer needed a driving lesson.

    When attorney Annee Della Donna hired driving instructor Daniel Mulrenin, she was unaware he had another set of skills. He was a private investigator and retired Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant haunted by the case of two Black teenagers who he believed were wrongly convicted on multiple charges of attempted murder.

    Mulrenin couldn’t stop thinking about it. And in Della Donna’s kitchen, he couldn’t stop talking about it.

    “I couldn’t let it go, because I know they didn’t do it,” Mulrenin recalled. “How could I come home to my wife and live by the beach when those guys are serving 11 consecutive life sentences?”

    Della Donna had a full calendar of civil cases and no experience as a criminal lawyer. But she listened as Mulrenin told how he was hired by a defense firm to look into the Los Angeles County conviction of Juan Rayford with Dupree Glass. Rayford’s family, however, ran out of money and the firm dropped the case, Mulrenin said.

    Attorneys Annee Della Donna and Eric Dubin, who are working with UCI Law School students to exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted, stand together outside the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana on Wednesday, June 28, 2023. (Photo by Jeff Antenore, Contributing Photographer)

    “I took the opportunity to tell her about Juan and Dupree because I was stuck in limbo and I had no lawyer who could pick it up and run,” Mulrenin said.

    He found a sympathetic ear in Della Donna, an aficionado of Russian ballet and the wife of a hospital emergency room doctor. A self-described crusader, Della Donna liked nothing more than to champion underdogs.

    Mulrenin knew she was hooked when her eyes lit up and she asked to hear more.

    “I had prayed and prayed about it, I didn’t know a lot of attorneys,” said Mulrenin, a devout Catholic whose experience had shown him that cops can make mistakes. “She was the answer to my prayers.”

    In that kitchen, the gumshoe/driving instructor and the attorney/mom forged a partnership in 2011 determined to prove the innocence of Rayford and Glass, despite a prosecutorial team intent on preserving their convictions.

    Help from law students

    Mulrenin dropped off stacks of boxes containing evidence at Della Donna’s house. Those files detailed the Jan. 2, 2004, shooting that was quickly blamed on two teenagers who had no idea what they were in for.

    Della Donna enlisted the aid of students at the UC Irvine School of Law, who helped tear through the documents, track down witnesses, review legal theories and prepare court challenges. Their work would blossom into a university project dubbed Innocence OC, which today works on behalf of others thought to be wrongly convicted.

    In all, they have won the release of 13 people through a reversal of convictions or clemency petitions.

    “Most lawyers go their entire careers and never have something like Annee is doing,” said Anna Davis, who runs the pro bono program at the UC Irvine School of Law. “I think the students just love Annee, she’s got energy and passion that you just don’t see.”

    Said Della Donna: “I’ve always been a bit of a Nancy Drew.”

    Nine years after Della Donna and Mulrenin joined forces, the case against Rayford and Glass collapsed on appeal and they were released in October 2020 — after spending nearly 17 years behind bars. Earlier this year, a judge declared Rayford and Glass were not the shooters.

    And in November, the state is expected to give them nearly $900,000 apiece in compensation for their time in prison.

    In recent interviews with the Southern California News Group, Rayford and Glass discussed what happened the day of the shootings, their gratitude for those who secured their release and how they have rebuilt their lives since they walked out of prison.

    Night of the shooting

    On Jan. 2, 2004, Juan Rayford was an 18-year-old with NFL dreams, having played wide receiver for the Antelope Valley High School football team.

    He was at a party that night, shooting dice in the back room, when he heard his friend, Dupree Glass, 17, was heading to another house to fight a guy who had challenged him. Rayford drove with Glass to the second house; both said they didn’t have any guns.

    When they arrived, 15 to 20 other kids were already milling around the front yard, waiting to see the fight. But the other combatant never showed up. Sheila Lair, who owned the house, walked out the front door to tell everybody to go home, there wasn’t going to be a fight that night.

    And that’s when the shooting started. Eight bullets were fired from outside the house, piercing windows and walls, according to court records. Two people were injured, but no one was killed.

    Glass, in an interview, remembered hugging the ground, “trying to figure out who was doing this dumb-ass (stuff) because we all knew each other.” Glass had shared several meals with Lair’s family at the house.

    After the shooting, he and Rayford went home and forgot about it. “I was a kid, like, no harm, no foul,” Glass said.

    But Lair, angry that her home had been shot up, didn’t forget about it. Neither did Los Angeles County sheriff’s Detective Christopher Keeling.

    Eleven days after the shooting, Rayford and Glass were at a Highland High School basketball game. A teacher walked up to Glass and took him to a deputy. Rayford walked over to see what was happening. Both teenagers went to jail that night and didn’t get out for nearly two decades.

    At the sheriff’s station, Glass remembered seeing a bulletin for his arrest on the wall, devil horns drawn with red ink on his photo. He said there were darts in the poster.

    “It was beyond devastating. When you’re young, you’re naive,” he said. “I didn’t grow up going to court or visiting prisons. I knew nothing about that world.”

    He was about to find out.

    ‘Excited to start trial’

    Glass and Rayford thought it was all a misunderstanding that would get cleared up, at least when they got to trial. “The whole time we were actually excited to start trial, because we didn’t do nothing,” Glass said.

    The trial came in September 2004. It was a two-day affair that Della Donna said was before an all-White jury. Forensics showed the shots came from two directions and from two different calibers. No guns were recovered.

    Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Michael Blake called two eyewitnesses, Lair and her 15-year-old daughter, Donisha Williams.

    Both identified Rayford and Glass as the shooters. Another person, Douglas Bland — who went by the moniker “Fat Man” — had also been identified as a shooter. According to court records submitted by Della Donna, forensics had shown there were only two gunmen. So how could both Rayford and Glass be implicated?

    Prosecutor Blake argued there must have been three shooters.

    Blake also used the then-novel “kill zone” theory of law, which was adopted in California in 2002 under the case of People vs. Bland. Since there were 11 people in the house at the time of the shooting — all in the so-called “kill zone” — Rayford and Glass were charged by Blake with 11 counts of attempted willful murder.

    A jury convicted them of all 11 counts, each carrying a consecutive life sentence. The judge also tacked on 220 years apiece for gang enhancements.

    At the time Glass was 5-feet-7, 120 pounds, and looking at hard time.

    ‘Shocked, confused, scared, nervous’

    “It was like being snatched from heaven and going to hell without no good reason,” Glass said.

    Rayford couldn’t wrap his brain around the idea that he wasn’t free to leave.

    “I was shocked, confused, scared, nervous. I couldn’t see myself going to jail for something I hadn’t done,” he said. “I always assumed … everything was going to iron itself out. I would have bet a million dollars I was going home that day.”

    Prison was tough on the two lifers. As a juvenile, Glass started in county jail and eventually was sent to a Level 4, high-security, state correctional facility. There were nights that Glass went to sleep praying he wouldn’t wake up.

    “Murders, rapes, whatever you can think of, I’ve witnessed it,” he said. “I lost hope.”

    Juan Rayford was barely an adult — a terrified teenager — when he entered prison. After the first frightening year, Rayford acclimated to prison life, studying in the law library and working as a janitor of sorts. He became a middleman for prisoners, passing notes while sweeping the floors, delivering food or hot water for tea, working somewhat as a prison porter.

    New attorney takes case

    In that capacity, he met another prisoner known only to him as “Sugar Bear.” For some reason that Rayford still doesn’t know, “Sugar Bear” hooked up Rayford with his attorney, who took Rayford’s case and hired private investigator Mulrenin.

    But Rayford’s family ran out of money for the attorney and Mulrenin was left with no lawyer to pursue the case. And that’s when he found Della Donna, who had a soft spot for charity work. As a teen, she once labored for a week in the kitchen of a Tijuana poor house.

    Della Donna was intrigued, but first wanted to meet Rayford before signing on to working for free. She and Mulrenin drove the 4 1/2 hours to the men’s prison in San Luis Opisbo; it was Della Donna’s first time in a correctional institution. After talking to Rayford, she believed his story.

    “From there she jumped in with both feet,” remembered Mulrenin. “From that point, I had to keep up with her. … Annee is a bulldog.”

    Criminal law novice

    Della Donna knew little, if anything, about criminal law. Her background was in civil injury. In the 1980s, she was an associate for retired California Supreme Court Justice Marcus Kaufman, working on appellate cases. The experience stoked Della Donna’s scrappy spirit

    “When people tell me ‘no,’ I don’t listen,” she said.

    Della Donna started boning up on criminal law, talking to every criminal attorney she could find and eventually turning to UCI Law School. She put together a group of five students to work through the case of Rayford and Glass.

    Della Donna and the students debated, wrote briefs, tore the case apart. Discrepancies appeared. The “kill zone” theory seemed overly broad. And no one had interviewed the 20 or so other people present during the shooting, she said.

    Attorney Annee Della Donna, center, with Dupree Glass, far left, and Juan Rayford, far right, and her team who helped get the falsely convicted men freed from prison after they served nearly 17 years for attempted murder. Retired detective Daniel Mulrenin, from left, Innocence OC co-CEO Eric Dubin, and lawyer Madeline Knutson, who was a UC Irvine law student at the time, gather in Laguna Beach onSaturday, August 5, 2023. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Della Donna and her students went to work, tracking down 12 other witnesses and sending Mulrenin to interview them. Each person they interviewed said Rayford and Glass were not the shooters. Della Donna also found Lair’s other daughter, Shadonna, who said she could see Rayford and Glass and they were not armed.

    Confronted by Mulrenin with those statements, Lair said she was angry that Rayford and Glass wouldn’t tell her the names of the actual shooters.

    “She said something to the effect, ‘Well, if they weren’t the shooters, they should have told me who the shooters were,’ ” Mulrenin said.

    Despite the growing evidence that Rayford and Glass were innocent, prosecutors fought to preserve the convictions and keep them in prison.

    ‘Kill zone’ theory challenged

    Before Della Donna got involved, an appellate court dropped the gang enhancements, citing insufficient evidence that the two young men belonged to a gang. Della Donna went to work on the “kill zone” theory, filing brief after brief to the appeals court that the theory was overly broad and improperly applied.

    In 2019, the state Supreme Court changed the game in People v. Canizales, ruling the theory requires that the shooter intend to murder one specific person in the kill zone and be willing to take down all the others in the zone to accomplish that goal. Such was not the case with Rayford and Glass, and, the next year, appellate justices overturned their 11 convictions. The district attorney’s office ultimately decided not to retry the case.

    But Rayford and Glass weren’t out of the woods. Because of red tape and bureaucratic mix-ups, it took months for Della Donna to get both of them out of prison.

    “Annee had to do what Annee does, piss people off to get me home,” Rayford said. “I was living the dream that day.”

    Before Glass left the facility in Kern Valley, he gave his shoes to a fellow prisoner and then walked out of the gates to call his mother.

    “I’m beyond grateful,” he said. “Every time I see (Della Donna and Mulrenin), it’s like I’m meeting Lebron James.”

    But Della Donna wasn’t finished. She and civil lawyer Eric Dubin wanted a judge to declare Rayford and Glass factually innocent  — and the attorneys wanted the state to pay the pair for their time in prison after being wrongfully convicted.

    DA stands by convictions

    Della Donna won a hearing on their innocence, which was opposed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office under reformist George Gascon. A response submitted by prosecutors said they still believed Rayford and Glass shot at Lair’s home.

    “The defendants are not actually innocent,” said the D.A.’s opposition papers. “The motion’s principal claim — that two key trial witnesses lied under oath — is false. … Respondent has not lost confidence in this conviction.”

    Testifying during the innocence hearing in April, Lair stayed the course, giving the same testimony as in the trial — Rayford and Glass were the shooters. Only this time, her credibility was damaged by what she had earlier told Mulrenin. Her daughter, Donisha, didn’t show up to testify, Della Donna said.

    When it was their turn, Della Donna and Dubin had a new witness, Chad McZeal, a gang member serving 90 years to life for another shooting. McZeal confessed on the witness stand to being the second shooter at Lair’s home, clearing Rayford and Dupree. McZeal had earlier reached out from prison to Rayford’s family, wanting to clear his conscience.

    What sealed the deal for Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge H. Clay Jacke was the courtroom reaction of Rayford and Glass to McZeal’s confession.

    Rayford jumped to his feet in court and began yelling, “Why?” Glass sobbed at the defense table.

    Judge: Not the shooters

    “Now, that is what I call newly discovered evidence,” Jacke said, adding, “Mr. Rayford and Mr. Glass were not shooters, nor did they aid and abet the actual shooters, who the court believes were Mr. Bland and Mr. McZeal.”

    Still, Della Donna and Dubin had one more task. They continued to fight for Rayford and Glass to get paid out of a state fund for victims of crime.

    In September, the state Attorney General’s Office said it would not oppose the California Victim Compensation Board’s decision to award Rayford and Glass $867,020 each for 6,136 days of incarceration. The board is scheduled to consider the payment Nov. 16.

    Both Rayford and Glass now work for Walmart and have small children. Rayford’s high school sweetheart had waited for him.

    Meanwhile, Della Donna’s Innocence OC has become one of the most popular volunteer projects on the UC Irvine Law School campus, with 52 students going through it over the years. She and Dubin now are taking aim at dismantling the “kill zone” theory overall, saying it is overused by prosecutors to avoid having to prove intent in attempted murder cases.

    “There’s a lot more Juan and Duprees out there, a lot more stories to be told,” Dubin said.

    And Della Donna’s daughter, Eliana, now 28, did, indeed, get her driver’s license — although her skill behind the wheel is questionable, says her mother.

    ​ Orange County Register