Documentary Tells The Story Of Simitian Bill For The Wrongly Convict

By Malcolm Maclachlan

Capitol Weekly
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July 27 2009

When most people think of movie stars in Sacramento, it’s Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger who comes to mind. But Tuesday will see the Sacramento
premier of a documentary featuring Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto,
and his effort to pass a bill on behalf of the wrongly convicted.

"$100 a Day" was made by Gwen Essegian, who worked as a district
staffer for Simitian for a year in 2004 and 2005. It tells the story
of Rick Walker, an East Palo Alto man who spent 12 years in prison
for a murder he didn’t commit.

The 35-minute film is also a procedural drama about the bill Walker
inspired. State law has long called for the wrongly convicted to be
compensated $100 for each day they spent in prison. But this money is
approved in special bills only about twice a year. Simitian felt that
Walker’s case was so egregious, and his situation on release so dire,
that he deserved to be paid right away rather than waiting several
months. The bill, needing a two-thirds vote, was threatening to go
down to the wire on partisan lines.

."They did a good job with a subject that frankly doesn’t always
lend itself to an engaging treatment," Simitian said of the film,
which was shot and co-produced by Mark Ligon, who is both Essegian’s
romantic and filmmaking partner.

"It’s fairly timely," Simitian added when reached while driving
back to Sacramento for a budget vote (yes, he was using a hands-free
set). "The irony is part of it is about how the budget debate tends
to foul everything else in its vicinity."

The film features other faces familiar to those around the Capitol:
then-Speaker Herb Wesson; Sen. Jenny Oropeza, who became a leading
supporter of the bill; and longtime Sacramento Bee reporter, Jim
Sanders, who wrote several stories on Walker’s case.

After serving 12 years in facilities that included Pelican Bay and
San Quentin, Walker was found on appeal to have been convicted by
false testimony. He eventually won a $2.75 million settlement against
Santa Clara County. But when he was first freed in 2003, he was put
on the streets with no services and no money-not even what is given
to actual parolees. Under Simitian’s bill, he would have been due
$400,000 right away.

Essegian came to the story after the fact. When Simitian termed-out
of the Assembly and won election to the Senate in late 2004, he took
over a district that includes Santa Cruz. He brought in Essegian,
a Santa Cruz native, to spend a year setting up his local district
office and teaching him about the area.

Her resume includes a combination of public policy-she spent years
doing outreach for the Armenian Assembly of America-and television
experience. From 2000 to 2004, she was the producer and host of
"On Topics," a public affairs show in Santa Cruz.

After leaving Simitian’s office, she and Ligon began piecing the story
together from interviews and legislative footage. They conducted hours
of interviews with Walker, who admitted that his prison experience
had changed him for the better.

."He went into prison a very bitter man," Essegian said. "He said that
while he was in prison, it was just starting to kill him, literally. He
was getting sick, having stomach problems. He turned his life around
and walks out of prison a very forgiving person and not bitter at all."

She added that this perspective is common among the wrongly-convicted:
"These guys all lost so much time when they were in prison, they just
didn’t want to waste any more of their time now that they’re free."

The Commonwealth Club hosted an early showing of the film, with Walker
speaking, at Santa Clara University in February. It will show Tuesday
at 6 pm at Sacramento’s Crest Theater as part of the Sacramento Film
and Music Festival.

Next month, it will show as part of the DocuWest documentary film
festival in Golden Colorado next month. They’re also working on a
slightly shorter cut to air on public television. Essegian and Ligon
have also signed a distribution deal with Filmed Media Group, which
will get the film into libraries and universities.

"Getting in into schools and using it as a teaching tool was really
one of our goals," Essegian said.

Simitian praised the film for not making it "a partisan story." But
the partisan politics certainly came into play, as he asked then
Assembly Republican leader Dave Cox to break a pledge to not let any
of the 60 or more bills needing two-thirds to pass in the midst of
budget negotiations.

Cox refused, Simitian said, noting that if he made an exception,
other authors would want the same and he would lose leverage. But
ultimately two Republicans broke with their party-Alan Nakanishi and
Shirley Horton, now both termed out-opening the way for the bill to
slip through. Simitian said Horton’s vote was particularly courageous.

."In Shirley’s case, she was a freshman and had one of the toughest
re-election races in the state facing her," Simiatian said. "She knew
she was going to need help from her party and her party leadership."

"I think ultimately the film raises a very intriguing question,"
Simitian added. "Was the outcome on that night a case for optimism
because the legislature managed to put its partisan differences and
do the right thing for at least one Californian? Or should it be a
source of concern that is so hard to get the right thing done just
once for one person?"