Timothy James Young (left), on death row at San Quentin, and UC Santa Cruz undergrad Allison Dean are working together to try to get Young exonerated for the 1995 murders he is accused of committing. (Courtesy of Timothy James Young)
The Solitary Garden on the UC Santa Cruz campus is a small space, 9 feet long by 6 feet wide, flanked by old-growth oaks and sweeping views of the Monterey Bay.
It's a little oasis, with its bushy plantings of rosemary, daisies and agave. The dimensions of the public sculpture are intentional — it's the size of an average solitary confinement cell.
Timothy James Young, the person tasked with curating the Solitary Garden, has never himself set foot on campus.
"I am a wrongfully convicted prisoner on San Quentin's death row," said Young when he introduced himself at the start of a recent phone interview with KQED from the maximum security state prison in Marin County.
The 52-year-old, also known as "the solitary gardener," is one among nearly 700 people on death row in California — the highest number in the U.S. Young said he's been locked up for 23 years on scant evidence. With his appeal process moving at a glacial pace, Young said he had given up hope of ever getting out — until students and faculty at UC Santa Cruz came along to campaign for his innocence.
"My journey to freedom didn't necessarily begin until I was introduced to Solitary Garden and the folks at UC Santa Cruz," said Young, who's been the curator of the garden since its inception on campus three years ago, thanks to a nationwide public art project protesting solitary confinement created by multidisciplinary artist and prison reform activist Jackie Sumell. The campus community does the actual gardening on Young's behalf.
Sumell put Young in touch with UC Santa Cruz after he reached out to her as an admirer of her work and they struck up a correspondence. Young said he has forged deep friendships as a result of with students and faculty on campus as a result of being involved with the project. The feeling is mutual.
"We want everyone to understand that this is not a relationship you can just walk away from. As long as he's in that cell, we need to continue to tend to that relationship, just as we tend the garden," said Rachel Nelson, who commissioned the Solitary Garden in her role as director of UC Santa Cruz's Institute of the Arts and Sciences.
Journey through the system
Young said it's been a long journey since the day of his arrest in April 1999. He said law enforcement officers pulled him over while he was leaving an Easter celebration in the San Joaquin Valley town of Lemoore.
"I look around and there's like assault rifles being pointed at me from every direction, and I'm just trying to figure out what the heck is going on," he said.
The arrest happened four years after the crime Young eventually found out he was accused of committing — the murder of five people in a bar in the nearby town of Tulare — took place. Stuck in county jail, Young said he assumed the criminal legal system would work in his favor.
"My initial thought was, 'Well, I'm an American. I have rights. Once we get to a preliminary hearing, this case will be dismissed,'" Young said.
The case went to trial despite shaky evidence and unreliable witnesses, including Anthony Wolfe, a man convicted of a felony who served as a paid informant in return for a reduced sentence for himself.
In December 2005, an all-white jury convicted Young, who is Black, of murder. A month later, he was sentenced to death.
"I sat thinking, 'The truth will come out. Just hang in there. This will all be exposed and it’ll all be over with,'" Young said. "The truth did come out. But everybody discarded it. And so 23 years later, I'm still wrongfully imprisoned and the nightmare continues."
A growing connection to students
In recent months, a small group of film and digital media students at UC Santa Cruz has been working to make a case for exonerating Young.
Marc Howard, professor of government and law at Georgetown, said that since the class launched in 2018, it has contributed to the exonerations of three wrongfully convicted people out of the 25 cases it has tackled so far. He and his students typically take on five cases a year.
"What started out as an experiment has actually turned into an extraordinary machine for justice," Howard said. "We have another prison release in the coming weeks. We may have another one still this year. And we've made great progress in a number of cases where the person initially had very little hope and we've at least helped them to obtain legal counsel."
Now with enhanced creative input from UC Santa Cruz on the filmmaking side for the first time this year, the schools joined forces to help get more people dealing with tough cases out of prison.
"Documentary works of art in particular have a lot of power to persuade, to change people's perceptions," said UC Santa Cruz film and digital media professor Sharon Daniel, who co-teaches the class. "It's a way of addressing a general public, an audience that maybe doesn't know anything about what's wrong with the criminal legal system."
Daniel said she approached Georgetown about Young's case after she developed her own close friendship with him.
She first got to know him from the letters he wrote as part of the Solitary Garden project. Young went on to contribute to an interactive documentary Daniel made in 2020 about the impact of COVID-19 on the prison system (Young said he contracted the virus in 2020 and still suffers from long COVID symptoms). The two were starting to collaborate on another long-form documentary, this time about Young's case, when Daniel heard about the Georgetown class on a podcast.
So Daniel reached out to the professor there.
"And he [Howard] could clearly see that it was the kind of case that they really like to take on with the class," she said. "Really, really tough cases — cases where there seemed like there was no hope."
Cracking a tough case
UC Santa Cruz undergrad Allison Dean, part of the student team working on Young’s case, said she and her colleagues combed through more than 11,000 pages of legal documents.
"The evidence in the case was horribly mismanaged," she said. "There's just so many different small pieces that led to this wrongful conviction."
Fellow undergrad Sullivan Gaudreault said the team traveled to Tulare, where the crime was committed, and surrounding cities, to conduct interviews with as many people as they could find who were involved in the original investigation and trial.
"We interviewed the judge who oversaw the case," Gaudreault said. "We interviewed one of the lead investigators, people who knew Tim, his defense counsel."
The team also created a website, petition and social media campaign to gather support for Young. Right now, they have more than 700 followers on Instagram. The immediate goal is to get pro bono legal representation for Young as he moves through an appeal process that could overturn his conviction.
A legal firm is currently reviewing the students’ media campaign to decide whether to take on the case.
"I talk to Tim almost every day," Dean said. "And probably the hardest thing is when he calls and he asks for updates. And I have no updates for him."
Data from the center shows just how tough it is to get someone exonerated, especially in California and especially for someone on death row, where only five of the 692 people on death row have been exonerated since the early 1970s. (The state currently has a stay on executions.)
"There aren't enough lawyers and enough resources and enough courts with open hearts to correct all of the injustices that we see," Dunham said. "So there will always be a need for people on the outside to bring attention to things that are not being corrected."
In it for the long haul
Though the class is over, Dean and Gaudreault both said they plan to keep on fighting for Young’s freedom for as long as it takes. And their professors said they are planning for the bi-coastal collaboration to continue, with a crop of new cases next year.
Gaudreault said the class has inspired him to rethink his career path.
"For the longest time, I've been wanting to go into the marketing and advertising industry," he said. "I now want to pursue a career in nonprofit work and advocacy in terms of film, helping wrongfully convicted people have a voice and tell their story through digital media."
For his part, Young said he’s grateful for the students’ friendship and support. He’s optimistic their efforts will not only get him legal help, but also raise greater awareness about the urgent need to overhaul the penal system.
"They have committed to the long, hard fight," said Young. "That's not only a testament to the kind of people that they are, but it's a testament to the kind of relationships that we build."
Young is dreaming of the day when he can visit the UC Santa Cruz campus and his Solitary Garden in person.
"I want to just be in nature," he said. "I want to feel the soil running through my fingers."
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