When an innocent person is exonerated and walks out of prison, it's always a big news story. We see the tears of the loved ones, hear the stories of loss, and sort through the details of what went wrong. We see a failure in the system, but we also see a remedy: The innocent person going home.
What we don't see are the thousands of people who will never go home, not because they are any less innocent, but because there is some legal procedural bar stopping their case, or they simply cannot muster the evidence needed to meet the incredibly high standard for post-conviction exoneration.
Justin Brooks is the director of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law in San Diego. For 15 years his project has had tremendous success exonerating wrongfully convicted people in California, including NFL player Brian Banks. "For every exoneration there are many other cases where we believed in a client's innocence, but simply couldn't prove it," Brooks said. "Those cases I can live with. I can't live with those cases where we have strong evidence of innocence and the courts refuse to listen."
This past April he decided to do something about it. He and two of his attorneys, Michael Semanchik and Alissa Bjerkhoel, walked 712 miles from San Diego to Sacramento to raise awareness about wrongful convictions and deliver clemency petitions to Governor Brown for the California 12: 12 of their clients who had strong factual innocence claims that had been ignored by the courts.
Executive clemency is regularly granted by governors and presidents, but typically for those who are well connected, such as former Governor Schwarzenegger's grant of clemency for Esteban Nunez, son of former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and a political ally to Schwarzenegger. Sometimes the grants of clemency appear to be random acts of favoritism, such as former Governor Barbour in Mississippi who granted clemency to inmates who did odd jobs in his mansion.
Brooks knew his clients did not have similar political or happenstance connections to the governor of California. He and his lawyers knew they needed to get Governor Brown's focus on the merits of their client's claims and they were willing to weather the pain of 712 miles of heat, treacherous highways, and blisters on behalf of their clients.
On June 20, 2013, the three tired lawyers arrived in Sacramento, 51 days after they left San Diego, flanked by hundreds of supporters, including exonerees supporting their innocent brothers and sisters in prison and family members of the California 12. They delivered the clemency petitions to the governor and were granted a meeting with his staff to present their cases.
For the past six months, the clients, family members, and lawyers have waited patiently as the governor reviews the cases. They are hopeful that good news will come soon, but as a reminder to the governor that another holiday season, and another year, is about to pass with these innocent men and women in prison, they are returning to Sacramento on December 20, the week before Christmas, to recognize the six-month anniversary of the delivery of the clemency petitions. "We respect the process," Brooks said, "and we want to give the governor the time he needs to understand that these 12 men and women are innocent and should be released. But, it's hard to be patient when each day that goes by is another day of their lives that is unjustly lost."
Sign the change.org petition to Governor Brown urging him to free the California 12
Who Are the California 12?
The California 12 represent a cross section of wrongfully convicted Californians. Quintin Morris was wrongfully convicted based on a false identification (the leading cause of wrongful convictions). A federal judge reviewing his case even suggested he seek executive clemency from California's governor since the court system had failed to remedy his wrongful conviction. A bad identification also convicted Guy Miles, and although the true perpetrators have admitted they committed the robbery he was convicted of, he still sits in prison. Kiera Newsome was falsely identified at a crime scene even though her teacher places her at school working on an assignment at the time of the crime.
Suzanne Johnson, a 69-year-old grandmother, was wrongfully convicted of the accidental death of a child in her care because of bad science. Similarly, Alan Gimenez has spent 20 years in prison despite the fact that the science that convicted him has largely been debunked and new evidence suggests his daughter had a preexisting condition that lead to her death. Bad arson science convicted JoAnn Parks, and now one the leading experts in the country has determined the fire she was convicted of setting was accidental. Bad science in the form of faulty bite mark testimony helped convict William Richards of killing his wife on their remote property. DNA evidence has established his innocence and yet he sits in prison dying of cancer.
False evidence convicted Michael Hanline. Evidence of his innocence was hidden in sealed records for nearly 25 years before the California Innocence Project got them unsealed. Dolores Macias was convicted based on the false testimony of young children and Ed Contreras was convicted based on the false testimony of a scared teenage girl. These statements have been recanted and yet they both remain in prison.
What is the California Innocence Project?
Since 1999, the California Innocence Project has been working to free the wrongly convicted. They have exonerated 11 individuals who have served more than 150 years in prison. The California Innocence Project is a law school clinic at California Western School of Law in San Diego. To support their work you can make a tax deductible donation here.