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Sunday, September 20, 2009| Resting in the corner of Justin Brooks’ office at the California Western School of Law, a six-string acoustic guitar begs to be strummed. A few doors down the hall, an electric guitar waits for Jeff Chinn.

Brooks and Chinn are not professional musicians. They lead the southern arm of the California Innocence Project, a pro bono line of legal help for thousands of prison inmates in the region.

The pressure carried by the project’s directors can be overwhelming at times, so their guitars are kept at arm’s reach. They occasionally escape the challenge of their case files and teaching schedules through a rock melody or major chord.

“What we are trying to do here is save lives,” Chinn said. “To let us be completely consumed by that is not good.”

Eight inmates serving long sentences have been successfully exonerated by the project since it started at Cal Western 10 years ago. Those men served a combined total of 76 years in prisons before their freedoms were restored. On Friday, three of the exonerees will be traveling to San Diego for an alumni reunion and celebration of the project’s 10th anniversary.

And the number of exonerees to celebrate could soon become significantly larger. In the previous three months, the project helped three more inmates have their murder convictions overturned by Los Angeles, San Bernardino and federal judges. Combined, they have spent decades in the correctional system.

Reggie Cole was the first inmate to have his life sentence overturned this summer. He spent 15 years in prison for the fatal shooting of Felipe Angeles. The Innocence Project successfully argued that Cole’s prosecutors failed to release evidence to the defense and relied on faulty eyewitness testimony.

A month later, the conviction of William Richards was overturned. He was convicted of murdering his wife in 1997 even after two trials that ended in hung juries. New DNA evidence shows that an unidentified man held the murder weapon, not Richards.

And Rafael Madrigal had his murder conviction just overturned 10 days ago. He was convicted in 2002 of a gang-related shooting by a federal court. The Innocence Project convinced a judge that Madrigal’s attorney failed to present an alibi to the court that would have placed him away from the shooting.

Although the recent rulings are victories for the Innocent Project, the inmates have not been released from prison yet, pending the decision of prosecutors to appeal the rulings or schedule new trials.

“I think for me, every time I get to meet an exoneree. … I think it’s their strength and their stories that keep me going,” said Chinn.

Most of the successful cases spearheaded by the Innocence Project have involved new expert testimony or the identification of poor witnesses in the original trial. In the most recent exoneration, a law student tracked down a key witness from 20 years ago who falsely testified that Tim Atkins confessed to murder. The witness recanted her testimony to the student and later to a judge, and the Los Angeles man was set free.

“It felt like a thousand tons of weight was lifted from my shoulders,” Atkins said. “This is a great program. There are a lot of people in California prisons who are innocent.”

Atkins first heard about the Innocence Project through a fellow inmate who believed Atkins was wrongfully convicted. The project will consider any inmate’s case, but gives the most attention to people who always argued for their factual innocence, said Chinn, who oversees which cases will be pursued with further investigation. The group will take cases involving a guilty plea, but those are harder to overturn.

Most of the inmates who mail letters to the Innocence Project have been sentenced to life in prison or death. They have likely exhausted all other options of appeal, which Brooks tries to emphasize to the project’s participants.

“If we say no, that person dies in prison. It’s almost a certainty,” Brooks said. “I can’t sugar it up for you in any way. The truth is, we are the end of the line.”

Unlike normal criminal procedure, the burden of proof in a wrongful conviction case is placed on the accused. The accused is charged with providing evidence that points unerringly toward innocence. Even recanted witness testimony isn’t always enough.

The Innocence Project was unable to argue for the innocence of Delores Macias, of Los Angeles. She was convicted of drowning her niece 1994 through the eyewitness testimony of her four children. The victim’s mother however — the only other adult at the scene of the drowning — testified that Macias was not involved. The mother’s testimony was not enough to overrule the children and Macias was sentenced to serve 19 years to life in prison.

The Innocence Project tracked down Macias’ children and in 2007, three of them said they lied about the drowning and that their mother was not involved. A judge hearing the new testimony said the new information was still not enough to set Macias free.

“That case until the day I die is going to haunt me,” Brooks said. “It affects me profoundly. These wins are great for a little while and you feel really good about yourself. The losses are just horrendous.”

Brooks, a former defense attorney for inmates on death row, has directed the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law since the program’s inception 10 years ago. He started the program as similar projects started to pop up across the country to help give his students more clinical experience.

Brooks used to personally read the inmate’s letters and help filter the caseload, but he said the work became too taxing. He decided to delegate more of the initial work to law students and volunteers so he could place more focus on the litigation.

“We have to run this like a law office with constant cases coming in and still be mindful of the education for the students. That is the greatest challenge,” Brooks said. “People are deconstructing cases, finding out what went wrong and fixing it. It’s a good way to learn to become good lawyers.”

The student’s work area is two small rooms down the hall from Brooks and Chinn and a few blocks north of the San Diego Superior Courthouse. The walls are covered with filing cabinets, storage boxes and candid shots of the project’s alumni. At any point in time, the students are actively investigating 100 cases and 50 are in some stage of litigation.

About a dozen students assigned to examine new cases conduct an initial investigation of the inmate’s claims and present their findings at a twice-weekly seminar associated with the project. The group brainstorms new approaches to the case and tries to assess whether it has a chance in court. The project’s leaders make the final decision.

“The hardest part of the job is writing the letter that says we can’t do anything for you,” Brooks said. “A glimmer of hope, we’ll run with it. Most of the cases there is not a glimmer of hope.”

Graduates of the law school and Innocence Project have gone on to work across all fields of criminal law. They become public defenders, prosecutors or work for the state attorney general. Some have been hired by San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis as prosecutors. Dumanis is one of the few district attorneys who will sit down with the Innocence Project when it has issues with a conviction, Brooks said.

“We don’t always agree (on the case), but we always agree to look at everything,” Dumanis said. “I think we have a duty to examine that. No one who is a prosecutor wants someone who was a wrongful conviction to stay in prison.”

In 2004, Dumanis asked the San Diego Superior Court to grant a petition from the Innocence Project and Kenneth Marsh to overturn his 1983 murder conviction. New expert testimony strongly questioned whether the medical evidence showed Marsh had been involved in the death of a young boy.

Dumanis is the exception among California law enforcement, Brooks said. Most police officers and prosecutors fight the Innocence Project by obstructing its access to evidence and delaying court proceedings.

“We’re just seen as this huge nuisance that’s coming to town that’s going to undo people’s work,” Brooks said. “Almost everything we do throws a monkey wrench into the system. Part of me loves that, but it’s also very aggravating.”

That’s where the guitar steps in.

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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