Former death row inmate looking toward freedom

RENO - Jack Mazzan has been taking long walks, contacting family and old friends. He tries out cell phones, CDs and the Internet - all firsts after 20 years on Nevada's death row.

Since the January reversal of Mazzan's murder conviction and his May 6 release, he's taking tentative steps in a world he had seen only on a printed page or on a prison television set.

Mazzan could go back to prison if he loses at a retrial scheduled for July. But if he is cleared, he'll walk away after having spent more time at death's door than anyone in this country to successfully appeal a capital murder conviction since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

In all, 86 people have been exonerated of capital crimes since that ruling, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. And all of the cases - including 13 in Illinois, where the governor barred executions pending an investigation - figure in a growing national debate over the fairness of capital punishment.

Mazzan, a 53-year-old former hairdresser and Vietnam-era Navy veteran, is at the center of an extraordinary case that began with the 1978 stabbing death of a judge's son.

It has included such characters as Mills Lane, who prosecuted Mazzan long before he became a syndicated TV show judge, and an unheralded investigator whose fluke findings led to a blistering Nevada Supreme Court ruling that suggests prosecutors withheld evidence that might have cleared Mazzan two decades ago.

Despite the ruling, prosecutors want him sent back to prison.

''This is a guy who's been convicted of murder once and he's been sentenced to death for it twice,'' Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick said. ''He was a drug dealer before then. So I'm not quite sure why everybody's so enamored of him.''

The body of 26-year-old Richard Minor Jr. was found in his apartment by his father, then-Reno Justice of the Peace Richard C. Minor. He had been stabbed 15 times.

Mazzan and Minor had been smoking marijuana, snorting cocaine and taping albums at the apartment a few hours before the slaying.

Mazzan said he tried to leave but his car wouldn't start and Minor told him to sleep behind the couch. He awoke to see Minor scuffling with someone he couldn't identify. Minor collapsed and Mazzan heard two people running away.

Mazzan ran, too. Fearing he might be in danger and could be busted for drug use, Mazzan fled to Las Vegas. Police contacted him and he voluntarily returned to Reno. He was charged with murder.

Mazzan, who had no prior record, said he had two sources for his drugs: Minor and Minor's girlfriend, April Barber, a prostitute at the now-closed Mustang Ranch brothel east of Reno.

Barber disappeared about the time Minor was killed and her body - also stabbed - was found near the ranch nearly a year after Minor's death. No one was ever charged, and the state Supreme Court noted that her purse and bloody coat were put in a trash can sometime after Mazzan's arrest.

Mazzan was convicted of first-degree murder in 1979 and put on death row in January 1980. He appealed unsuccessfully several times over the years, was re-sentenced to death in 1985, and his conviction stood until the Supreme Court's Jan. 27 ruling.

It was a bombshell: In reversing Mazzan's conviction, the court criticized prosecutors for not giving the defense information about other suspects - alleged drug-dealers who hadn't been paid for thousands of dollars worth of drugs supplied to Minor.

''The evidence in the police reports provided support for Mazzan's defense that someone else murdered Minor because of his drug dealing,'' the ruling said. ''It also provided a basis to impeach the thoroughness of the state's investigation of the crime.''

Defense lawyers said they weren't told about reports on the other suspects and the files surfaced only a few years ago in response to a subpoena from the state public defender's office.

Behind that subpoena was the work of public defender investigator Michael Hodge, who had been going through old police reports on the Mazzan case. The reports said Harry D. Warmbier and Mark A. Siffen had been under surveillance for alleged drug-dealing, had known Minor for years and might have been in Reno when Minor was killed.

He also found a police memo to then-District Attorney Cal Dunlap that said the prosecutor's philosophy was ''a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'' Other reports told of Minor losing drugs and money to burglars and trying to borrow more money to pay suppliers.

''To be honest, I got that information by a fluke,'' Hodge said. ''You only come across these things as an investigator once or twice in your lifetime.''

Tim O'Toole, who as a deputy state public defender filed the 1996 petition listing the newly found files, said: ''If the state of Nevada had its way, Jack Mazzan would be dead today.''

''This was 20 years on death row for an innocent man,'' O'Toole said after the ruling. ''Anyone who talks about speeding up the appeals process needs to read this opinion first.''

Neither Warmbier nor Siffin was arrested or charged two decades ago. Since January's court ruling, both have been questioned by authorities, but prosecutors told defense lawyers they didn't think either man was involved in Minor's murder.

Warmbier didn't return a call to his home in Indiana. David Schindler, a lawyer for Siffin, said the wealthy developer in Indiana and Southern California is being ''unfairly smeared as part of a defense effort to free Mr. Mazzan.''

Asked about the court opinion's references to Siffin, Schindler said, ''To the extent it refers to my client, it reads like 'Alice in Wonderland.'''

Former prosecutors Dunlap and Lane both defend their work.

''The prosecution was proper, and if he's tried again he'll be convicted again - even with this new information,'' Dunlap insisted.

Said Lane: ''What I had, they (the defense) had. What I didn't have, they didn't have.''

Minor, the retired judge, said he always doubted the state's theory that one person was responsible for his son's killing. He said any information on Warmbier and Siffen shouldn't have been withheld years ago but he's also certain that Mazzan had some role in the murder.

''He knows more than he's talking about,'' Minor said. ''I don't care whether he dies or not, but I do hope he's back in prison. I'm confident that on retrial he'll be back in the big slammer.''

Attorney JoNell Thomas, who took over Mazzan's defense, is considering a civil lawsuit against prosecutors that, if successful, could mean millions of dollars for Mazzan. He might not be interested.

If cleared, Thomas says Mazzan might rather ''get on with what's left of his life, move back to where his family lives, and try his best to get this all behind him.''

Mazzan hopes his scheduled retrial will end with a ruling that he can go home to North Carolina with his mother. He also looks forward to seeing his son, now 29, who was 7 when he last saw him.

Jean Mazzan, 72 who arrived here Tuesday to see her son, shares his hopes.

''He's innocent, and all these years he put in, it's just a crime that it took away the best part of his life,'' she said. ''It's just a waiting game now, but I'm sure the outcome is going to be what it's supposed to be. Justice will be served - at last.''

A 6-foot, 200-pounder when he was arrested, Mazzan gained 90 pounds and contracted diabetes while in prison. He is free on $100,000 bail, money put up by an uncle.

Did he ever give up hope on death row? ''Sometimes the pressure was so intense that I'd wonder not whether I could make it another day but another 10 minutes,'' he said.

When released May 6, Mazzan was so choked up he could barely speak. The next day he said, ''I got up this morning and looked around and realized I was actually free. I could go outside and walk in the yard and look around and nobody would care.''

''I didn't need permission to go to breakfast. I took a bath and washed the dishes, and then I went out walking.''

Mazzan said this week he's not bitter. ''I'm done with that,'' he said. ''I have more life to live, and to be upset or mad about what's already happened would take too much energy.''

''I've missed so much of my life and I've missed so much of my family's life that now I'm interested in just being with my family, taking care of my family and living life as smoothly as I can.''

''I'm just happy to be out. Every hour is a Christmas present.''


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