Documentary tells the story of Simitian bill for the wrongly convicted

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.

“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 left 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. They’re also working on a slightly shorter cut to air on public television. Essegian and Ligon have also signed a distribution deal with Films 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?”

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