California lawyers walk from San Diego to Sacramento to raise awareness of the wrongfully convicted
In 1993, William Richards returned home from work after midnight to his remote community in San Bernardino to find his wife lying half-naked on the ground brutally murdered.
Frantic, he called 911. Homicide detectives arrived hours later, but waited until the morning to investigate and failed to secure the crime scene. Since the detectives did not find evidence of any other suspects at the time, Richards was charged with his wife’s death. After three trials, Richards was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison despite his plea of innocence.
In 2009, lawyers from the California Innocence Project (CIP) presented DNA evidence that had been overlooked in Richards’ initial trials. The judge found him innocent and reversed the conviction, but due to an appeal made by the prosecuting attorney in the case, Richards, who has cancer, still sits in jail.
Cases like Richards’ inspired CIP Director and professor Justin Brooks, of California Western Law School, and other CIP lawyers to march from San Diego to the governor’s office in Sacramento to raise awareness about wrongful convictions.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools, more than 1,100 individuals have been wrongly accused of a crime and exonerated, or cleared of all charges, since 1989.
“About a year ago, I was lying in bed thinking about my clients in prison and how frustrated I was in some of these cases,” says Brooks. “I thought clemency is the way to do this, and the only way to get it is if we take some kind of action that will bring attention to these cases.”
Starting on April 27, Brooks and other staff attorneys with the CIP began a more than 600 mile-long “Innocence March” up the Pacific Coast from San Diego to Sacramento. The march will conclude with a presentation of clemency petitions to Gov. Jerry Brown for the “California Twelve,” a group of individuals, including Richards, who Brooks and his colleagues believe are wrongfully imprisoned.
Brooks and the Innocence March’s other participants will be holding rallies in cities along the way, including a Thursday, June 6 event in Santa Cruz. The marchers will also be gathering signatures for the petition they plan to present to the governor as they go. They have gathered more than 30,000 signature so far.
“It’s been tiring and hard, but it hasn’t been as hard as being wrongfully convicted,” says Brooks, who was about 200 miles into the march in Santa Barbara when he spoke to GT. “My clients go through a lot worse than this.”
Brooks created the CIP in 1999 as a clinical program within the California Western Law School in San Diego with the mission of releasing wrongfully convicted inmates while also providing hands-on educational experience to students in the program. The CIP reviews approximately 2,000 cases each year, which usually come to the attention of the program through correspondence from inmates.
Students from the program assess each case along with professors. If, after careful scrutiny, they believe an inmate to be innocent and can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, they research the case further. Of the thousands of cases presented to them each year, the program chooses around 50 to study closely, and file against around five. The program has helped to release around 10 inmates since its inception in 1999.
“I tell these guys when they get out how lucky they are, because it’s luck that there was the evidence around to meet the very high standards of reversing a wrongful conviction,” says Brooks. “There are a lot more people that are innocent in prison, but we can’t prove it.”
The California Twelve, a group of individuals from various backgrounds and locales, have all been imprisoned under false pretenses, according to the evidence presented by the CIP, for a combined total of 190 years and a cost to taxpayers of approximately $8.5 million.
When Brooks, his colleagues, and supporters arrive at the Capitol, they plan to present their petition to Gov. Brown himself, but so far, they have only confirmed a meeting with his chief-of-staff.
Brown, like the president, has the power to grant clemency, or exonerate all charges against an individual, if he believes them to be innocent. Due to his frustration with the legal process in the cases of the California Twelve, Brooks hopes that Brown will grant them reprieve without trial.
“Making as much noise as possible to let the governor know that as many people as possible care is really what it’s all about,” says Brooks.
The Innocence March arrives in Santa Cruz Thursday, June 6. The CIP will hold an event at the Catalyst, 1101 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, to raise awareness about their cause with the help of the musical group Boostive. Tickets are $5 presale and $10 at the door. For more information visit innocencemarch.com