Fifteen years ago, a handful of attorneys, supporters, and the press gathered in California Western's Roy Bell room under a portrait of John Jay, the first Supreme Court justice. They were there to witness a milestone. Larry Mayes, the Innocence Network's 100th DNA exoneration, spoke about his unjust imprisonment, and how the Innocence Network had helped him.
"There were just a few of us there. We all fit into that space," remembers Professor Justin Brooks, director and co-founder of the California Innocence Project (CIP) at California Western School of Law. CIP, the conference host, was still a year away from exonerating their first client, Jason Kindle.
Back then, CIP was only a few years old and had newly joined the network of innocence projects across the U.S. that had sprung up since the early 1990s, when DNA testing became advanced enough to be used as evidence.
As the network has grown to 68 international organizations, it's exonerated more than 2,000 prisoners. Interest and support has grown exponentially. At California Western, CIP alone reviews thousands of cases per year, allowing student interns to gain first-hand legal experience while working to overturn unjust convictions with overwhelming evidence of innocence.
This weekend, CIP welcomes the Innocence Network Conference back to San Diego for the first time since 2002, and this time there's way more than a handful to witness the law school program's success. The conference has 750 registered attendees, including 190 exonerees, 17 of whom were freed by the California Innocence Project.
Education and Support
California Western is one of only 16 law schools in the country with an innocence project, providing invaluable experience to students as they help research and prepare cases. Several students have gone on to become CIP attorneys and will be presenting seminars at the conference. Alissa L. Bjerkhöel JD'08, Raquel Cohen JD'09, Michael A. Semanchik JD'10, and Alex J. Simpson JD'04 are all CWSL alumni whose student internships led to full-time positions. Not coincidentally, CIP Director Justin Brooks will present on how to utilize students and technology to win cases of innocence.
Two of the California Innocence Project's successes are slated to speak at supportive exoneree-only workshops. Brian Banks, a high school football player whose promising NFL career was crushed by his wrongful conviction but who ultimately was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, will lend his social media expertise and inspirational speaking skills to the other exonerees. Kimberly Long—an ER nurse who was found guilty of murder—served seven years in prison before she was exonerated last year with the help of lead attorney Bjerkhöel. Long will speak to fellow exonerees about PTSD.
The conference also features special keynote speaker Valerie B. Jarrett, who was senior advisor to President Obama; Amanda Knox, whose controversial Italian imprisonment made international headlines; and world-famous attorney Barry Scheck, one of the original Innocence Network founders.
Since its inception, the California Innocence Project has grown to include six attorneys, three staff members, and 12 student interns. The internship program is so popular that there are more student intern applicants than there are spots. All CWSL students may attend the conference.
According to CIP Managing Attorney Mike Semanchik, the Innocence Network Conference allows California Western students to learn about miscarriages of justice from all over the world. "With more than 2,000 wrongful convictions in the United States alone since 1989, there's a lot of room for improvement with our justice system," he explains. "The exposure to real-life examples will hopefully have a lasting effect on our student body, especially for those heading into the criminal justice arena."