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Two decades ago, a young law professor in Michigan named Justin Brooks heard about a 20-year-old woman in Illinois who’d been sent to death row as part of a plea bargain. It made no sense to him that someone could be sentenced to death on a plea bargain, so he decided to help. He also turned to his students to see if they’d be willing to assist.
“Four brave souls raised their hands, and we embarked on a multi-year mission,” Brooks said. “We ultimately got her off death row.”
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That case inspired Brooks to devote his life to freeing the innocent from prison — and he has been successful. In 1999, Brooks moved to San Diego and became the founding director of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law. The project has since freed 18 prisoners who have spent more than 150 years collectively behind bars.
“The clients drive me more than anything else,” said Brooks, who created the project along with Professor Jan Stiglitz. “When you exonerate someone, it’s a huge deal. There is nothing like giving a person their life back and returning them to their family. I’ll never forget walking any of our clients out of prison, particularly Mike Hanline, who we returned to his wife after 36 years of wrongful incarceration.”
Hanline is one of the California Innocence Project’s most high-profile success stories. He served nearly four decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit in Ventura County. The California Innocence Project attorneys and law students uncovered secret evidence and exonerated Hanline, who was released in 2014. No exonerated prisoner in California history has spent more time behind bars. Watch the video below to see Hanline’s first day free:
“The key to the California Innocence Project’s success is to draw upon the expertise of the experienced attorneys and the energy of law students,” Brooks said.
“The motivation comes from my students and my staff,” Brooks said. “My staff attorneys are all former California Western students and each year a new group of students comes in filled with excitement for the work. The legacy of our work is our freed clients, but it’s also the great lawyers we produce.”
Alex McDonald, now a San Diego public defender, worked on cases ranging from gang-related homicides to decades-old sexual assault cases during a year with the California Innocence Project. She was there when Brooks told a prisoner with a life sentence that he’d be released because he’d been exonerated.
“Working with the California Innocence Project shaped my development as an advocate for my clients,” McDonald said. “I learned what it means to give all of yourself to your work and your clients and to fight for a cause that is bigger than yourself. And I learned how painful and disappointing work in the criminal justice system can be, which helps me cope with my hard losses I now have in my practice as an attorney.”
The California Innocence Project was one of the original small group of similar projects doing this work, but is now one of about 60 similar projects around the nation—and 50 more around the world—all devoted to freeing the innocent from incarceration. Brooks sits on a board that coordinates the work of all of the projects.
In addition to working to free prisoners, the California Innocence Project advocates for changes in the law to protect the innocent and provide support for the exonerated.
“We worked on a new law that changes how the exonerated are compensated,” Brooks said. “We’ve been involved with legislation regarding the preservation of DNA evidence and changing the standards for new evidence.”
The California Innocence Project has much more work to do. Attorneys and law students are currently focusing on the cases of 18 prisoners who have served as long as 23 years behind bars. The project believes that all of them were wrongly convicted and imprisoned. If they’re fortunate, they may soon join the others who have been exonerated and now live in freedom.
“The California Innocence Project is hope,” said Linda Johnson, a staff attorney with the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program who worked with the project as a student. “It’s hope for people who have had everything taken away from them, and hope knowing there are people in the community who care about the wrongfully incarcerated and have dedicated their lives to securing freedom for the innocent.”
There are several ways to help the California Innocence Project free the innocent.