Convicted Until Proven Innocent

California Western School of Law’s Innocence Project tries to ‘put Humpty Dumpty back together’ to free the wrongfully imprisoned

Published in 2014 San Diego Super Lawyers Magazine — February 2014

Justin Brooks was working as a law professor in Michigan 20 years ago when he read about a young woman sentenced to death in a plea bargain in a murder case. Baffled, he met with the inmate, who said her lawyer had advised her that taking the plea would save her life. She also insisted she was innocent.

“I was teaching a criminal law class and told my students, ‘There’s a 21-year-old on death row in Illinois who says she’s innocent. Who wants to help me out?’” recalls Brooks, 49. “Four brave, stupid souls raised their hands, and we spent the next four years investigating her case.” 

They managed to get the client off death row, but the woman is still serving time despite Brooks’ appeals. “But the experience of working on that case with law students made me decide that that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

That opportunity came when he spotted an ad for someone to run a criminal defense institute at California Western School of Law in San Diego. Brooks talked school officials into turning the program into something more. In 1999, armed with a small endowment, office space and a part-time assistant, Brooks founded the California Innocence Project with a three-fold mission: free innocent people convicted in Southern California; train students how to be great lawyers while working on real cases; and change laws and policies that lead to wrongful incarcerations. 

Today, the California Innocence Project has 10 staff attorneys, as well as volunteer attorneys and law students involved. About 12 students at a time earn academic credit in demanding, competitive positions and work 20 to 40 hours a week on multiple cases for two semesters. The law school pays for Brooks’ director salary, overhead and computers; he raises funding for case expenses and to pay staff attorneys.

Since its inception, the project has secured the release of 18 inmates, including four in 2014. Each case takes years, sometimes decades. Michael Hanline, for example, walked free in Ventura County in November 2014 after serving 36 years of a life sentence without parole for the 1978 murder of biker J.T. McGarry. It took Brooks’ students more than 15 years to prove that Hanline, the longest-serving wrongfully convicted inmate in California history, had been the victim of false witnesses. 

In December, the project worked with the David House Agency, an international crisis resource organization, to secure the release and return to the U.S. of Matthew and Grace Huang. The Los Angeles couple had been wrongly imprisoned in Qatar over the accidental death of their daughter. 

There are, obviously, many obstacles to freeing an innocent person. Clients are sometimes angry and difficult to work with. Families, eyewitnesses and evidence are hard to track down. Reconstructing old cases is like “trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together,” says Brooks. And California’s stringent new-evidence standards—the highest in the country, which require overwhelming evidence of innocence, far beyond a single standard like DNA evidence—make it extremely tough to get a conviction reversed. 

But the hardest part, says Brooks, is turning down most of the more than 2,000 new claims they receive annually in order to choose only 40 to 50 cases. “We have to have evidence that completely undermines the prosecution’s case and points unerringly to innocence,” he says. “And in the vast majority of cases, we don’t have it.”

Only the most tenacious students need apply. “I’m looking for the one who’s just hungry for this stuff,” Brooks says. “They’re told, ‘These are your cases and the reality is, if we don’t win, they will die in prison. It’s a lot to say to you when you’re 22 years old … but this is what you’re facing as a lawyer.’” At the end of the year, some students decide against criminal law. But for the majority, Brooks says, “It’s the only thing they want to do for the rest of their lives.”

A student with the California Innocence Project from 2006 to 2007, Lindsay Herf, now 35, spent part of her time searching for witnesses the defense never called or who had been uncertain about their testimonies. “I thought I would be a contract attorney; I had zero interest in criminal law,” says Herf, who currently does microscopic hair-comparison reviews as post-conviction counsel for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Washington, D.C. “It totally redefined the type of lawyer I wanted to be.” 

Last year marked another milestone for the California Innocence Project; it successfully sponsored three pieces of state legislation: to improve access to DNA evidence in wrongful conviction cases; allow for the reversal of convictions based on false expert testimony; and simplify the compensation process for wrongfully convicted former inmates. 

Legislative work is “incredibly empowering” for students, says Brooks, who often tells them, “If we lose in court, then we go change the law. Don’t give up. There’s always a way.” 

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