by Meredith Timpson
TV crime dramas can be riveting. There, suspects, lawyers, and prosecutors engage in diligent examination of the facts and reach logical conclusions. The innocent, and not so innocent, get what they deserve. If only that were true off-screen.
Justin Brooks knows first-hand it’s not. Brooks is a law professor at California Western School of Law and director of the California Innocence Project (CIP), a law school clinical program dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people and teaching students to become excellent lawyers.
This past fall Brooks came to Kalamazoo College as the 23rd William Weber Lecturer in Social Science. The lecture series, funded by William Weber ’39 (who has attended every one) each year brings to campus a nationally-known scholar in economics, history, political science, psychology, or sociology and anthropology.
Brooks characterizes his work as “mopping up after bad lawyering.” In 1994 he was teaching law in East Lansing, Michigan. He read a newspaper article about a 21-year-old woman in Illinois who pled guilty to murder and yet, amazingly enough, was on death row under the plea-bargain agreement. Since the whole premise of a plea-bargain assumes that a death sentence will be taken off the table if the defendant admits responsibility, Brooks felt compelled to investigate.
With the help of several students he discovered, among other things, that the eyewitness in the case couldn’t possibly have seen anything from where she claimed she was standing. After a lengthy battle, the sentence was reversed in 1997.
“The most frustrating thing is that innocence is not a legal claim,” says Brooks. “You can’t bring new facts to an appeal. You can only plead to what is already in the record.”
In other words, “you can have tons of new evidence but no way to introduce it.” Such was the case in Los Angeles for Jason Kindle, a man who was eventually exonerated after serving two years. “You have to prove ineffective assistance of council and that the lawyer completely misstated the law,” Brooks says. “It is hard to get bad lawyering taken into consideration. There is a very high bar. You must prove that, had another lawyer handled the case, there would be a different result.”
Kindle was convicted for the 1999 armed-robbery of the Office Depot where he was a contracted janitor. He was convicted based on inaccurate voice recognition testimony and a list of store cleaning instructions found in his home. Police and the district attorney believed the latter was a robbery list, when in fact it was notes Kindle took during a training course sponsored by his janitorial services employer.
California Innocence Project reexamined the evidence presented at trial and discovered a videotape of the robbery that proved the actual perpetrator was six foot, six inches tall. Kindle is a head shorter at six feet. The charges were ultimately dismissed, and Kindle was released.
CIP is part of a national network of organizations that claim 261 convictions overturned in the United States. Seventeen of these were death row cases. Many persons had been incarcerated for more than 20 years.
There are countless stories, some involving overzealous prosecutors, eyewitness misidentification, un-validated or improper forensic science, false confessions or admissions, government misconduct, or incompetent legal representation.
Timothy Atkins served 23 years because of a
William Richards was convicted of the murder of his wife through fabricated forensic evidence. Other DNA evidence on the murder weapon was not found until the California Innocence Project requested an independent lab investigation.
The problem of false convictions is not getting better, according to Brooks, because crime is increasingly politicized. “For example, when the carjacking law in Michigan was passed it carried a much greater sentence than armed robbery even in cases when the carjacker did not use a weapon. That made little sense. It was purely political because carjacking was the ‘crime du-jour.’ Politicians have to be tough at every level and live up to an image. A culture of fear drives the legislation.”
Currently the California Innocence Project receives its funding from donations and annual fundraisers. Its largest donor is the rock band The Eagles.
“Because it is copyrighted by court reporters, a judicial transcript cannot be photocopied without paying. That’s 10,000 pages at a dollar a page.” Adds Brooks, “I don’t know how long they can continue singing ‘Hotel California.’ How long can justice lie in the hands of aging rock stars?”
Justin Brooks, the 2010 Weber Lecturer, and William Weber, founder of the lecture series and the William Weber Chair in Political Science.