A three-judge panel for California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento issued a ruling Thursday overturning the conviction of Isiah Fowler, who was convicted in 2013 of stabbing his 8-year-old sister to death at their family’s Valley Springs home.
Fowler’s defense attorney at his trial, Steve Plesser, said the state Attorney General’s Office has 15 days to request a rehearing in the appellate court, though he added that such requests are rarely granted.
Plesser said there will be a 10-day window after 30 days from the ruling for the Attorney General’s Office to file a petition for review by the California Supreme Court.
If the high court does not take the case up for review, Plesser said it will be sent back to the Calaveras County Superior Court after 60 days. At that point, the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office could move forward with a retrial, dismiss the case, or offer a plea deal.
“They could make a plea offer, but we’re not interested,” Plesser said.
Isiah Fowler, now 17, will remain in custody at a California Youth Authority in the Stockton area at least until the case makes its way back to Calaveras County Superior Court, according to Plesser, at which point that court will have to determine whether he should be detained pending a new trial.
The Attorney General’s Office could not be reached Thursday evening. The Calaveras County District’s Attorney’s Office declined to comment because it’s a pending case that involves a juvenile.
Leila Fowler died after being stabbed more than 20 times on April 27, 2013, while her parents were attending a nearby Little League baseball game.
Isiah Fowler, who was 12 at the time, was home with his sister and reported hearing an intruder while he was in another room.
The children’s parents, Barney and Crystal Fowler, called 911 at about noon after receiving a call from their son telling them there was an intruder in the house.
The boy later told investigators he had chased the intruder out of the house and found his sister lying in the corner.
Leila Fowler was taken by ambulance to Mark Twain Medical Center in San Andreas, where she was pronounced dead at about 1 p.m. that same day.
Her death gained national media attention and sparked a manhunt for the intruder, whom Isiah Fowler described as a 6-foot-tall man with a muscular build and shoulder-length gray hair.
An area resident said she saw the intruder but recanted her statements when the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office asked her to assist with a sketch.
On May 11, 2013, the late Sheriff Gary Kuntz announced at a news conference at a substation in Valley Springs that Isiah Fowler had been arrested as a suspect in the death of his sister.
Isiah Fowler was found guilty of second-degree murder by Calaveras County Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Smith on Oct. 6, 2015, following a 17-day trial. He was sentenced on Nov. 4, 2015, to remain in custody until he’s 23 years old.
In the 58-page ruling that overturned the conviction, the three-judge panel determined the juvenile court had inappropriately relied upon statements made by Isiah Fowler over the course of four separate interviews with Calaveras County Sheriff’s and FBI investigators in the days after his sister’s death.
The appellate court ruled that Isiah Fowler was not appropriately advised of his Miranda rights and Barney Fowler’s participation in one of the interviews could have contributed to inconsistent statements the judge used as part of the basis for the guilty verdict.
“Even though he didn’t confess, he was interrogated repeatedly and was constantly told they had proof that he had done it and they had no evidence of an intruder,” Plesser said.
“They even got his father to push him that he did this and he held fast and refused to confess to something he hadn’t done,” Plesser continued, “but, as you can imagine, any 12-year-old subjected to interrogation by police and FBI after having just witnessed the killing of their sister would make statements inconsistent with other ones.”
Plesser said that over the last 20 years there has been increasing recognition by experts that juveniles can be easily manipulated by such interrogation techniques.
A new state law that went to effect on Jan. 1 requires minors under 15 to have an attorney appointed to them before being interrogated, even if they’ve been advised of their Miranda rights.
“A minor can’t even waive his Miranda rights unless first consulted with an attorney,” Plesser said of the new law.
Plesser also noted how DNA of an unknown male was found on hair recovered from Leila Fowler’s buttocks area. The sample was put into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, but no match was found at the time.
According to Plesser, the DNA sample doesn’t get routinely compared to the national database anymore because the case is considered solved.
“I think it’s time they started (comparing the sample) because I don’t want to hear about them doing that only after a new murder,” Plesser said.
Isiah and Leila Fowler’s parents have steadfastly maintained the boy’s innocence.
Crystal Fowler provided a comment from the family via Facebook Messenger on Thursday that stated they were happy about the news that his guilty verdict was overturned by the appellate court and they never believed he was guilty of the brutal crime that took the life of their daughter.
She further stated that Calaveras County is not responsible for her daughter’s death, though she was critical of how the investigation was handled.
“They never looked anywhere other than Isiah, and did not follow the evidence, and in the process destroyed a 12-year-old child’s life,” she stated. “Getting justice for Isiah is the first step in getting justice for Leila.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.