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Deputy District Attorney and Chief of the Collaborative Justice Division Brent Neck with a stack of files from his 1996 prosecution of Jonathan Simmons while in his office at the Hall of Justice on Wednesday, January 29, 2020 in San Diego, California. Seven years ago, Neck decided Simmons didn't deserve the 43- to life sentence he received for stabbing a man and started to work on getting him out of prison. Simmons was released on Christmas Day, 2019. (Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

SAN DIEGO - For decades, something about the case didn't sit right with Deputy District Attorney Brent Neck.

He had won the 1996 conviction of a San Diego gang member for stabbing a homeless man over a bad drug deal. Neck got the culprit locked up on a sentence of 43 years to life in prison under California's "three strikes" law.

But Neck kept thinking about the defendant, Jonathan Simmons. And the more he thought about Simmons, the more he thought that the sentence was just too long. The punishment didn't fit the crime.

Last year, Neck accomplished something that many prosecutors might never consider. Working with the San Diego-based California Innocence Project and using a new law allowing certain prisoners to be re-sentenced, Neck got Simmons out of prison.

Simmons, who figured he might never leave prison, walked out on Christmas Day.

"I couldn't believe it. Wow, I was really free," Simmons said in an interview last week. "They came through for me. The DA is the one who really came through for me."

The Innocence Project, founded in 1999, reviews about 2,000 claims of innocence each year and has secured the release of 30 people. Project attorneys work on cases with help from California Western School of Law students.

The law, AB 2942, went into effect a year ago and allows local prosecutors to review a prisoner's request for re-sentencing and petition a judge to hear the matter. Penal Code Section 1170 expanded the right of prosecutors to initiate such petitions, not just wait for an inmate to file one.

The San Diego County District Attorney's Office was the first in the state last year to use the new law to push for the release of Kent Williams, a three-striker who had served 33 years of a 50-to-life sentence for burglary and auto theft. He was released last fall.

Neck's use of the PC 1170 expanded rights was also a first in the state, District Attorney Summer Stephan said.

"For me, I was very proud of Brent Neck for bringing this forward," Stephan said last week. "Beyond using the new law, it told me that we had created a culture in our office that takes pride in doing justice. Justice may mean you re-evaluate and you make sure the punishment fits the crime."

Neck, who is chief of the Collaborative Courts Division in the district attorney's office, which seeks alternatives to long state prison terms, said he hopes his action encourages other prosecutors to follow suit.

"Any prosecutor should feel comfortable to take a second look at a case where justice dictates that we should," Neck said in a recent interview. "The pendulum of criminal justice is constantly swinging. In this day and age, people are being paroled on a lot more serious cases than this."

Simmons, 57 - who was in his mid-30s when he entered prison - now has to prove while on parole for three years that he can rejoin society and stay out of trouble.

Simmons started a class in refrigerator repair last week. He said he's open to any type of work: washing restaurant dishes, janitorial, construction or handyman odd-jobs. But what he really wants, he said, is to use the biohazard certificate he earned at Folsom State Prison to work in a hospital.

He is living in transitional housing in North County and hoping his experience under the re-sentencing law will encourage other prison inmates.

"If somebody out there feels the system is unjust: keep hope alive and one day it might happen for them, too," Simmons said.

He said sentencing laws are too harsh. "You're doing crime, there's consequences. (But) they're over-doing it with these guys. They may be guilty, but they're doing too much time. They get a life sentence and they didn't kill anyone."

The prison exit door began to crack open for Simmons in 2012, as the case continued to bother Neck.

"It's always been a case I thought about," Neck said in a recent interview. "I respected the jury verdict and we won on appeals. But I always thought the sentence was perhaps too harsh."

According to an account of the events filed by Neck and a defense attorney to the San Diego Superior Court late last year, Darryl Jones, then 32 and homeless, was stabbed in the back on June 12, 1996.

He suffered a ruptured spleen, but recovered. About a week later and out of the hospital, he told a police officer what had happened.

Jones said a parolee, later identified as Simmons, had sold "bunk" cocaine to a homeless man named Victor. In retaliation, Victor beat up Simmons' half-brother. When Jones started to approach that half brother to straighten it all out, Simmons stabbed Jones in the back.

Simmons got arrested that day on an outstanding warrant. At a live line-up of Simmons and five other black men, and again in trial, Jones identified Simmons as his assailant. Simmons raised a defense of mistaken identity, but a jury convicted him of assault with a deadly weapon.

On Dec. 6, 1996, Simmons was sentenced to 43 years to life in prison. The sentence was so long because of his prior felony convictions for robbing pedestrians and a store clerk in 1982, 1983 and 1986.

"It didn't look like I had any more future," Simmons said in an interview. "I was under 'three strikes' at the time - that was the end of my life."

Asked if he committed the stabbing, Simmons answered cautiously, "I played a part in it."

As the years rolled by, Simmons says he matured and his behavior changed.

"Being in there (prison) wasn't doing it," he recalled. "It was a wasted life. It was time to change, and to get out, I had to show that." He stayed away from gang members and signed up for a variety of prison courses - biohazard handling, upholstery, sewing, cooking.

Neck contacted the Innocence Project in 2012 and asked the lawyers there to look into Simmons' case. They did, over the next few years, but couldn't find proof of innocence.

"It's the first case a prosecutor has brought to our office in over 20 years of our existence," Innocence Project attorney Alissa Bjerkhoel said. "I know there are other prosecutors out there who have concerns about a case. But I think it was very brave of Brent to do this."

Neck said his office supported his efforts.

"I went to our DA and said I think he's done enough time. Based on his prison record and the facts of the case, we were comfortable that it was the right thing to do," Neck said.

Stephan, the district attorney, said she made sure they balanced Simmons' "second chance" with public safety and victim rights. Neck wrote to the victim, Jones, in October last year, laying out the proposed re-sentencing and asking his opinion.

Jones said it was all right with him. Neck called his attitude courageous and compassionate.

Suddenly, things started moving faster. Neck filed a motion for re-sentencing on Dec. 10. Bjerkhoel filed a motion in support on Dec. 20, the day Superior Court Judge Michael Smyth heard their arguments.

Neck recalled saying Simmons' record of behavior in prison was good, he had a lot of family support and prospects for the future. Neck and Bjerkhoel asked Smyth to re-sentence Simmons to "time served."

The judge agreed.

"I was kind of shocked," Simmons said. "He said he probably wouldn't make that decision except that I had support and my biohazard certificate. My son's mother said she would let me stay with her for a little while. Two of my brothers and my dad came. He (Smyth) was impressed with that."

Neck remembered the moment as "surreal."

"We are the same age, 57. I looked at him and said, 'Mr. Simmons, we both have a lot less hair and maybe, hopefully, we have a little more wisdom.' He smiled and said, 'Thank you,'" Neck said. "I'm just thrilled that he was released."

Bjerkhoel said she and Neck had been keeping the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation apprised of their efforts. Nearly immediately, the state released its "hold" on Simmons, who had been transferred to a county jail before his re-sentencing hearing. Simmons was freed on Dec. 25.

One of his brothers picked him up and they made the rounds to various family homes, including their father's in southeastern San Diego. Everyone fed him Christmas dinner.

"I was stuffed," Simmons said with a laugh.

Simmons said he has always believed in God and that faith "will always be a part of my life. That is what made this possible."

Though he watched the news in prison and was aware of what was going on in the world, now that he's out, Simmons has had a lot to catch up on. He made a trip to the ocean, which he hadn't seen in 22 years. He's working on getting new ID cards and a driver's license. He wants to see Las Vegas for the first time, maybe travel.

"It seems I got a little control over my life," he said with satisfaction. "I'll probably marry, find me a good woman. I got my eye on somebody."

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