When California Innocence Project (CIP) exonerees and the families of yet-to-be exonerated inmates get together, it is always a highly emotional experience.
That was the case on April 27 at an event marking two years since the start of the Innocence March, where CIP Director Justin Brooks, along with Staff Attorneys Michael A. Semanchik '10, and Alissa L. Bjerkhoel '08 walked 712 miles from San Diego to Sacramento on behalf of the "California 12."
The 2013 march was a symbolic act to convince Gov. Jerry Brown to free the California 12—a group of wrongfully convicted inmates with compelling cases of innocence that the project is working to free. Since then, the November 2014 exoneration of Michael Hanline has turned that '12' into an '11'.
After the anniversary event, Brooks, Bjerkhoel, and Semanchik led a group of CIP supporters on a new march—this time from the California Western campus to the community of Ocean Beach. Not quite as far as Sacramento, but also a reminder to Gov. Brown that the 'California 11' still await his action to set them free.
“One down, 11 to go,” said Brooks earlier at the anniversary reunion, attended by exonerees Herman Atkins, Bruce Lisker, Timothy Atkins, and recently paroled client Glenn Boyd. Also present was Nick Yarris, who spent more than 20 years on death row in Pennsylvania before he was proven innocent.
“There are 11 very strong claims of innocence,” Brooks said of the remaining inmates the project is working to free. “There are so many hurdles that make it so difficult to free them.
“The best way just happened this past week. The Ventura County DA’s office admitting one of the California 12—Mike Hanline—was in fact innocent,” Brooks added.
The group watched the video of Hanline’s first hours of freedom, produced by Semanchik—a video that has gone viral and has now surpassed 1 million views on YouTube.
The video was particularly moving for exoneree Herman Atkins, who relived the day of his release from prison 14 years ago.
“Moments like this make me want to be involved in this fight,” said Atkins. “I want to help other individuals when they get out—but a lot of my comrades are still in for crimes they didn’t commit.”
Family members of some of the California 12 were at the anniversary event, including Charles and Mabel Miles, whose son Guy is 17-and-a-half years into a 75-years-to-life sentence for a robbery Brooks says he did not commit. The Miles’ were moved by the work CIP is doing on behalf of their son, and others in the same situation.
“They really care about what they do,” said Mabel. “Their heart is in it.”
It also renews the Miles’ hope that the project will soon free their son.
“We’re not giving up,” she says.