Look deep into the heart of Alissa Bjerkhoel '08 and you'll find a burning passion for justice and helping the underdog. Over the past decade, she’s poured that passion into freeing the wrongfully convicted and it’s made her one of the best innocence lawyers in the country.
Ironically, Bjerkhoel wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she entered California Western School of Law in 2005. That changed when she attended an informational fair for new students.
“I can honestly say that a single day at California Western changed my life,” Bjerkhoel recalls. “I got a look at what the California Innocence Project was involved in and I was completely inspired by the incredible work they were doing to free wrongfully convicted prisoners.”
From that moment on, Bjerkhoel was obsessed with joining the CIP effort. She became a clinical intern with the program as a 2L, continued to work on cases as a 3L, and after she graduated in 2008, was hired as one of CIP’s first full-time staff attorneys.
In the years since, she’s been thrilled to work at one of the most fascinating and rewarding jobs in law, but one she admits involves a rollercoaster of emotions—ranging from joy and exhilaration to frustration and heartbreak.
There’s no better example of this spectrum than two Bjerkhoel cases—one that recently ended successfully and one she took just after joining CIP. This past June, she and her team were successful in reversing the conviction of Kimberly Long, a nurse imprisoned since 2009 for the second-degree murder of her boyfriend. It was the eighth exoneration Bjerkhoel has been involved with, and ABC’s 20/20 and NBC’s Dateline are both doing stories on the Long case.
“Watching Kim walk out of jail and others before her is one of the best feelings in the world because you know that literally years of hard work paid off and these people have finally regained their freedom and been reunited with their families,” Bjerkhoel says. “And then you get back to the office and realize you’ve got 10 other tough cases to work on.”
One of those dates back to Bjerkhoel’s first year as a CIP attorney eight years ago.
“I was a brand-new lawyer and I made a promise to an inmate that I would get him out of prison on a bank robbery conviction,” Bjerkhoel recalls. “He’s still there and I feel terrible about it, especially since our investigation uncovered the actual criminals. That’s the sad nature of our work sometimes. But I made a promise and I will never give up until I get him out. The good news is that I’m hoping it may happen within a matter of months.”
Bjerkhoel sees innocence work as her true calling in life and she’s looking forward to a long career at CIP and California Western. She feels fortunate she chose the law school for her education.
“I’m so proud CIP is based at California Western because the law school has such a wonderful focus on helping people who can’t help themselves,” Bjerkhoel says. “It’s amazing how many clinical programs we have here to provide legal services to those in need. And students interested in public interest law get to work on real cases with real clients. You just don’t see these kind of amazing opportunities at other law schools.”
Learn more about the California Innocence Project at www.californiainnocenceproject.org.