Local Rotarians hear of California Innocence Project: Guest speaker shares reasons for wrongful convictions

Imagine spending 23 years in prison for a crime you didn't commit. That was one poor fellow's story and when Michael Semanchik heard it as a first-year student at California Western School of Law, it gripped him. He was 23 years old at the time. Semanchik is now the managing attorney for the California Innocence Project, and he spoke about his work as a guest of the Point Loma Rotary Club, Oct. 5 at the San Diego Yacht Club.

"I realized that man had spent my whole lifetime in prison for something he didn't do," Semanchik told the crowd of 60 Rotarians, "and I couldn't believe that could happen. From that point on, I started going down this career path."

Semanchik, along with other team members, took up cases across the state of wrongfully convicted inmates in an attempt to get them on the other side of locked prison bars. The mission of the 19-year-old California Innocence Project, a 501(c)(3), is to exonerate those wrongly convicted through the use of DNA-testing and other methods, and to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustices.

"We're always going out and speaking to the community to raise awareness about wrongful convictions," Semanchik explained. "Telling our clients' stories is a way to ensure that it doesn't continue to happen."

Alex Nunes, president of the Point Loma Rotary Club, noted: "It's very important for people to know that we have attorneys in our area and at our local law school (Cal Western) who are making a huge impact on the justice system. They've affected several high-profile cases and we need to get the word out and support Cal Western and this program going further."

One-fifth of wrongful conviction cases are DNA-related, Semanchik said, adding that California was one of the first states to do regular DNA-testing at crime scenes, so using DNA evidence became the "low-hanging fruit" for the Innocence Project in the early years. Now, a lot of its projects are focused on witnesses recanting their statements, false confessions, and junk science.

Semanchik pointed out that police officers often contribute to the problem by unduly influencing the opinions of so-called eye witnesses. "We watch professional poker players wear hoodies, sunglasses and headphones trying to keep from giving away whatever cards they're holding. Well, police officers are not professional poker players. They've got 'tells' like crazy. Sometimes we have cases where they just tap the photo and say, 'Look at No. 5 again.' That's telling the witness it's suspect No. 5, right? (nervous laughs from audience). We recommend sending an officer in who doesn't know who the suspect is. It's that simple."

False confessions are another factor in wrongful convictions. This often happens in juvenile and "lower-IQ" cases, where those accused are susceptible to suggestibility with intense police pressure and coercion. Semanchik said suspects are often held for 12 hours or more in an interrogation room with no food, water nor sleep, being told over and over again "what they did" until they just end up cracking and admitting to a crime they didn't commit.

He laid out the case of Guy Miles of Orange County, who was convicted of a 1998 bank robbery after two witnesses identified him. One witness admitted during the trial, they didn't think it was Miles. During a recess in the case, however, the District Attorney convinced the witness that it was indeed Miles, and he was ultimately convicted, serving 18 years before getting out of prison for a crime he never committed. These were cross-racial identifications for both witnesses (when a witness identifies someone from race different than their own), which statistically prove less reliable.

Semanchik also talked about the well-known case of Brian Banks — a black high-school student destined for USC on a football scholarship — who at age 16 was accused of raping a female classmate on the campus of Long Beach Poly Tech High. He was facing 41 years to life in front of an all-white jury, and his attorney suggested if he copped to a single charge of rape, his sentence would be much less. He asked to talk to his mother to get advice, but the request was denied. Banks decided to plead guilty to a single count of rape that carried a six-year maximum sentence, which he got.

Five years-and-two months later, his accuser wanted to friend him on Facebook, saying "I want to let bygones be bygones, let's hang out." The girl was finally videotaped admitting that she was never raped by Banks, and the Los Angeles District Attorney reversed the conviction.

Banks went on to sign with the Atlanta Falcons and played in pre-season, but didn't make the final roster. When released, Banks said: "I'm here today and I remain unbroken." His story has been made into a documentary film to be released in 2019.

Junk science — which is basically faulty forensics — is also to blame for many wrongful convictions, Semanchik said. Forensic evidence includes fibers, dirt under fingernails, burns and bite marks, and is often inconclusive. "CSI is not real life," he commented.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed into law additional discovery rights for the wrongly convicted, making it easier for Innocence Project attorneys to do their jobs. But there's still a long road ahead, Semanchik admits. "One thing DNA brought to the table, is it revealed that we once thought we had the best system in the world and we didn't make very many mistakes. Now, we see about three exonerations a week, nationwide. It's shown that the criminal justice system is far from perfect and we have a lot of work to do to make it better."

— To learn more, visit innocenceproject.org

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