The case of Gloria Killian is a complex one of tangled relationships, deception and injustice. Being arrested and locked up for a crime you did not commit on the testimony of an individual you have never met is a shocking fate. Gloria Killian was a former law student with no criminal record who was tried and convicted of a robbery and brutal murder and sent to death row. The system she believed in, trained in and wanted to build a career in, had failed her.
Ed and Grace Davies lived a quiet life in their home on a leafy street in Sacramento, California. On 7 December 1981, Mr Davies opened the door to a man claiming to be a repairman, there to fix the telephone. Within minutes of this man stepping inside their home both Mr and Mrs Davies were tied up, had a gun pointed at them and were blindfolded. A second man entered their home and began demanding where they kept their silver.
Ed Davies was a coin collector and had recently brought bags of silver to the value of $27,000 from a local coin shop. Suddenly these intruders were inside his house and demanding to know where it was. He relented and told them the silver was in the garage. The men, despite obtaining what they wanted, shot the couple before leaving the house, killing Ed Davies immediately. Grace Davies survived her wounds and managed to crawl out of the house and into the street to get help.
Within days of the murder, an anonymous call to the police had named Gary Masse and his cousin, Stephen DeSantis, as the two who had carried out the attack. It was DeSantis who had conned his way inside the Davies’s home under the guise of being a repairman and Masse who then entered the house to find the silver coins they were looking for. During questioning, Gary Masse’s wife told police her husband was involved but it was Stephen DeSantis who had fired the shots and he had received his information and planned the robbery with a woman called ‘Gloria’.
Gloria Killian was a 35-year-old law student and rented a room from Mr Fletcher, the man who owned the coin store. Gloria was questioned by police on 16 December 1981, a week after the robbery and murder, as the mastermind of the crime. While being arrested she made a comment, ‘I always get caught’, words which would later come back to haunt her. Gloria assumed her arrest was about her landlord and she was simply being questioned as she worked for him. However, she soon discovered she was suspected of planning the full robbery.
“…Your name has come up.”
Police believed she had been told about Ed Davies’s purchase of the coins from Mr Fletcher, information she denied all knowledge of. She said she didn’t know who Gary Masse or Stephen DeSantis were. “I can’t tell you what I don’t know,” she told them repeatedly. Police became more insistent she was lying and they arrested her for murder. Gloria said she wanted to take a polygraph, a lie detector test to prove she was not lying. The police told her, “We will break you”.
Gloria was held without bail for four months, after which it was determined there was not enough evidence against her and she was freed. In the meantime, Stephen DeSantis was on the run and Gary Masse was tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole in May 1983. A year later, to her horror, Gloria Killian was arrested for the murder again. Soon after his conviction, Gary Masse had sought out Sacramento Sheriff’s Department looking to exchange information on the crime in return for a reduction in his sentence. He told police his cousin DeSantis was the shooter and Gloria Killian was involved in planning the robbery from the start.
Locked up without bail knowing she was facing the death penalty, Gloria Killian was terrified. In 1983, the California Supreme Court ruled that people charged as accomplices to murder could not face execution. She realised she was no longer facing death and was eligible for bail. For two years while free on bail, she knew her day in court was coming. “I would go from thinking they are never going to convict me for something I didn’t do, to thinking they are going to send me away for a million years,” she said.
Stephen DeSantis was found in Texas in 1985 and sent to trial. He testified he had never heard of Gloria Killian, he had never met her and she was not involved in any planning regarding this robbery and subsequent murder. With Gary Masse testifying against him, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Five days later, Gloria’s own trial began, four years after Ed Davies was killed.
The owner of the coin shop, Mr. Fletcher, was called to testify and told the court Gloria had talked to him about Mr. Davies but he maintained she knew nothing about the couple. Gary Masse repeated his claim that Gloria Killian had provided information and along with Stephen DeSantis had planned the entire robbery while maintaining he had received no deal through the prosecution for testifying.
Gloria continued to tell the court she didn’t know any of these people. Her statement at her arrest, “I always get caught,” was brought back up and used as an admission of guilt. The jurors found Gary Masse credible and found Gloria Killian guilty of first-degree felony murder, attempted murder, burglary, robbery, grand theft, and conspiracy, sentencing her to 32 years to life imprisonment.
“Are you crazy? How can you do this? How can you possibly do this?”
Gloria used her legal training in prison to write appeals for inmates and help them in their cases while her own appeals were all rejected. After studying law and having faith in justice, she felt betrayed by the system she had believed in. In 1992, after six years behind bars, Joyce Ride visited her. The mother of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Joyce was helping women in jail and discussed cases of battered women in prison with Gloria rather than her own case. After around a year she finally asked Gloria why she was in prison. When she heard the story, Joyce was convinced Gloria was telling the truth and she was innocent. “I’m annoyed by injustice. Profoundly annoyed,” Ride said. “This was clearly an injustice.”
Joyce Ride hired a private investigator using her own inheritance money to fight Gloria’s case. She unearthed the relationship between Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Christopher Cleland and Gary Masse which seemed to be favourable to Masse for his evidence. Appeals lawyers found a letter from Gary Masse to Cleland which stated his displeasure that he had “given them DeSantis and Killian” and “lied my ass off for you people” but had not received the benefit to his own case that he was expecting. Not only had Masse lied on the stand about the involvement of Killian, he had also lied about a deal being struck with the prosecution for his evidence.
The prosecution’s case was based on the idea that Gloria Killian was the link between Mr Fletcher at the coin shop and Mr and Mrs Davies, passing on information of Ed Davies’s large purchase of coins and planning a robbery to steal them. The agreement on a deal for Gary Masse with regards to his own sentence was never disclosed by the prosecution to the defence team, giving them no opportunity to highlight to the jury that the evidence of Gary Masse was entirely unreliable and given only to secure himself a better outcome in his own criminal case.
In 2002, 16 years after Gloria Killian had been imprisoned; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed her conviction on the basis that the witness against her who provided the only evidence of her involvement in this crime had provided false testimony.
“Because Masse perjured himself several times and because he was the ‘make or break witness’ for the state, there is a reasonable probability that, without all the perjury, the result of the [trial] would have been different.”
Defence lawyer William Genego said of the case, “There is no question that the prosecutors had an ethical obligation to bring that letter to the attention of the court and Killian or her lawyer.” The reversal of the conviction for Gloria Killian meant she either had to be released from prison or sent to a new trial. With the evidence of Gary Masse now entirely discredited there was no case against Gloria Killian. She was freed from prison in August 2002 and exonerated.
Today, Gloria Killian is using her experiences to help other women in prison. She is founder and Director of Action Committee for Women in Prison, an organisation which aims to advocate for the human and compassionate treatment of all incarcerated women.
Her case of wrongful conviction is a terrifying example of how the justice system can get it wrong and how deception and self-preservation from witnesses and lawyers when put before the truth, can have devastating consequences. In 2008 the District Attorney involved in this case, Christopher Cleland, who failed to disclose vital information to the defence, was brought up on disciplinary charges and found guilty with regards to his conduct and admonished by the California State Bar.