No murder case and trial captivated, divided, enthralled and mesmerized Kern County (maybe with the exception of the Vincent Brothers case) during the past 30 years like that of Offord Rollins IV. Rollins was 17 and a senior at Wasco High when he was arrested and charged with the murder of his former girlfriend, Maria Madera Rodriguez, in 1991. Rollins was one of the best prep track athletes in the country and was considered a strong favorite to make the U.S. Olympic team, likely in 1996. What I remember most about the case was that in Kern County, a county where the prosecution was always favored by local public opinion, there seemed to be a 50-50 split as to Rollins’ guilt or innocence. Rather than rehash the extremely complicated case here, this link from the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations provides one of the best and most concise explanations of this turbulent and emotional case.
Every Bakersfield Californian photographer worked on this story. Every trip to the courtroom was a potential powder keg; emotions were raw and openly displayed in public, especially by Rollins’ father, Offord Rollins III. Liz Boggs (Snyder) and Ed Homich did most of the trial photography. My most significant coverage occurred on June 16, 1992, the day Rollins was denied a new trial following his conviction on April 3, 1992. The Rollins defense team and supporters were convinced a new trial would be granted after one of the jurors swore an affidavit detailing apparent egregious juror misconduct that included jurors discussing evidence prior to deliberations and expressing opinions that Rollins was guilty before the case was sent to the jury for deliberations. When Judge Len McGillivary denied the new trial, all hell broke loose, with the elder Rollins confronting McGillivary in his courtroom and prosecutor Lisa Green (now Kern County district attorney) in the hallway. Because he was 17 at the time of the alleged killing, Rollins was sentenced to juvenile detention until his 25th birthday.
The conviction would eventually be reversed, in 1995, by the California Appeals Court, for the juror misconduct that McGillivary failed to find when he denied the new trial. A second trial would result in a split jury, and Rollins was set free when the prosecution did not seek a third trial.
By this time, news photographers were working with Kodak T-Max 3200 film, introduced in 1988. The grainy black and white film designed for extremely low light photography was otherwise excellent, offering snappy blacks, crisp whites and great tonal range. It was a game changer for the industry, allowing us to bring back better images from the cavernous Kern County courtrooms, among other places, and to capture raw emotion without being detected – or targeted – by firing on-camera strobes.
This first picture is Rollins reacting as the judge announces that his request for a new trial is denied. His attorney was Timothy Lemucchi.