Twenty years ago, California Innocence Project director and co-founder, Justin Brooks, changed his career as a criminal defense lawyer for a tenured teaching position at a university in Michigan, a small Victorian house and a good public school for his children. But the quiet, tranquil life as a professor only lasted one year, Brooks told those gathered at the La Jolla Bar Association meeting Jan. 12.
“I read an article in the newspaper that talked about a 21-year-old woman sentenced to death on a plea bargain,” he explained, “I went to visit her on death row, and I found a kid who didn’t speak English fluently, and she tells me this other amazing thing, which is, ‘I’m innocent.’ ”
That was enough for Brooks to sell his Victorian cottage and move to San Diego to start the ground-breaking California Innocence Project (CIP). This law school clinical program, based out of California Western School of Law, is dedicated to releasing wrongfully convicted inmates and giving students real life law-practicing experience.
Brooks said he decided to start the program in California because the state is “the belly of the beast” with the largest prison system in the country and the “toughest” sentence structure.
CIP reviews 2,000 claims of innocence a year, and chooses a few wherein they find strong evidence of innocence to pursue. With the help of students who participate in the clinic and attorneys who volunteer their time, they reopen closed cases, do DNA testing, gather evidence, speak to witnesses and, more importantly, free innocent, wrongfully convicted people.
Brooks, who hails from New York City, reported that so far, there have been 2,000 documented cases of wrongful conviction in the United States. “You may remember a time when people where deeply cynical about this, but DNA was a game changer. The Federal government has admitted that there are innocent people in prison,” he said.
Today there are 60 Innocence Projects in different parts of the country, and many more around the world. “This is a global problem,” Brooks insisted. “It’s not like the U.S. justice system is the worst in the world.”
Citing a study that researched the country’s first 300 DNA exonerations, he listed the most common causes of wrongful conviction. The No. 1, he said, is “bad identifications.”
“The study also found that 31 percent (of incorrect IDs) were attributed to false information from informants.” Brooks went on to explain that human memory, is mostly not reliable as evidence in a trial. “Our memories are affected by everything at the time of the memory. Stress, fear, alcohol … the problem is, every time there is a gun involved, your focus is on the gun,” he said.
Furthermore, when a witness is identifying a suspect from a race different than his own, there’s a 50 percent change that the ID is wrong. “Our ability for facial recognition is mostly developed in the first four years of our lives,” Brooks explained. “So when you’re looking at your mom, brothers and sisters, if they all look the same, you’re going to be terrible at cross-racial identification for the rest of your life. Lawyers have to learn how to talk to jurors about this and not sound racist, because there’s nothing racist about it.”
As an example, he used the case of Uriah Courtney, a San Diegan who was sentenced to life in prison and served eight years for a kidnapping and rape that he didn’t commit. His identification was based on the fact that he wore a goatee at the time.
“Fortunately, the District Attorney agrees to a DNA test of the victim’s clothing and we got a direct match with this guy, who lived a few blocks away from the crime scene and was a convicted sex offender,” Brooks said.
The CIP also pushes legislation to prevent cases of wrongful conviction. “This year, at my office, we wrote two laws that are now law in California; we changed the evidence standards for reopening old cases, creating the laws that allow access to DNA testing for people who are cross-rated, and we changed the law about compensating people who have been wrongfully convicted. Every year we have a legal agenda we push through Sacramento,” Brooks elaborated.
He said in San Diego County, they’ve been able to create a climate of collaboration with District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, which allows them to reopen old cases more easily than in other California counties.
Want to Know More? The California Innocence Project accepts donations to support investigation, litigation and policy-making. To learn more, visit californiainnocenceproject.org