The long journey of bringing an exoneree story to Hollywood
Brian Banks is the California Innocence Project’s most famous case. As a star high school football player in Long Beach, California, Banks was set to play for USC. In 2002, Banks was accused of rape by a classmate, Wanetta Gibson.
He was offered a deal: plead guilty and possibly just get probation, or go to trial and probably spend 41 years-to-life in jail. He chose the lesser of two evils, and spent more than five years in prison. Shortly after Banks was released in 2007, his accuser sent him a Facebook friend request. Banks responded by asking her to meet with him and a private investigator. Gibson was recorded stating that Banks had not raped her at all.
The California Innocence Project (CIP) got involved at that point, the first time they’d taken on a case after someone was already out of prison, determined to exonerate Banks. They examined other evidence from the case: there was no male DNA on Gibson’s underwear and a classmate said that Gibson had told her she made up the attack. Gibson was later ordered to pay $2.6 million to the school district where she said the rape occurred and to Banks.
CIP Director Justin Brooks sent out press releases ahead of what they hoped would be the District Attorney’s concession. Believing the public needed to hear this tale of justice-gone-wrong, Brooks was eager to get the Banks story into the public, and first met with an LA Times reporter in a Starbucks in Downtown LA. Brooks had Banks with him. She told him she wasn’t interested in talking to Banks, just him. Brooks asked her to hear Banks out. “It was actually really painful to watch,” Brooks says. “Here was Brian telling his story for the first time, and she just didn’t really care.”
Things only got better from there. The encounter was followed by an interview with Randy Paige of CBS LA, who produced a longer piece on Brian. “It got a ton of pickup,” Brooks remembered. Press started calling, and Brooks told them that there’d be a hearing soon, where they hoped the District Attorney would concede the case.
At the DA concession, a crowd of 30-40 reporters showed up. Afterward, Brooks spoke to the press. “I said, this kid can still play football. NFL coaches, give me a call,” he said, thinking that would never happen.
Seven different football coaches called within two weeks, offering tryouts.
The media began picking up the story. “It had an insane amount of media pickup.” They did morning and evening news shows. “Then we sat in a studio in San Diego and broadcast interviews all over the world.” During the press junket, reporters from Australia, Canada, Russia, and the BBC talked to them. “Brian was articulate and people were outraged by his story. We talked about how he just wanted to get his dream back.” It was the American Dream gone wrong, the tale of a talented football player who had everything taken away from him just before he was about to make it big. It was the story about a miscarriage of justice that people seemed to take personally.
Brooks got 2,000 emails a day during this period. “Normally I have about 150.” Lots of offers from “lots of crazy sources,” he remembers. “There was no way to sort through them.”
They began setting up NFL tryouts, with Brooks flying Banks to each one and cheering him on from the sidelines. “I was up in the middle of the night trying to figure out linebacker depth charts and which team he should go for. We didn’t have enough time to do all the tryouts he was offered.”
The tryouts became a national story. Then 60 Minutes did a story on Banks. The Tonight Show called. “It was surreal,” Brooks says. “They’ve never had an exoneree on.” TV people began calling. People stopped Banks on the street and asked for his autograph. When Banks was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, the attention increased. “It was crazy. Banks went from zero to hero in a short period. Not only zero to hero, but from monster to hero,” Brooks says.
This press caught Hollywood’s eye, and studios began reaching out. Finally Brooks contacted his longtime friend, California Western School of Law alumnus Neil D. Strum JD‘83, a prominent entertainment attorney in Los Angeles, for help in wading through all the offers. “I met Neil because the Cal Western alumni office asked me to,” remembers Brooks. “We were meeting for breakfast. I dressed up in a suit. The place he suggested was this cruddy bagel shop in Malibu. Neil turned up with his dog, in shorts, and I thought, ‘Now, this is a guy I can be friends with!’”
Strum and Brooks began meeting with movie studios, independent filmmakers, and screenwriters. Many pitched a football movie, which they weren’t interested in. “We were only interested in people who wanted to do a justice film. And to Brian’s huge credit, that’s all Brian was interested in, too.” Brian wanted it to be a serious movie. It was also important to them to negotiate a good deal for Banks, so he could receive compensation for his life story.
Finally they chose Amy Baer of Gidden Media, a small production company that has a long history with studios of producing high-quality films, like Moneyball. Baer helped them put together the right team, with Brooks and Strum involved in each hiring decision. To write the film, they chose Doug Atchinson (Akeelah and the Bee) who had a passionate vision for the movie. “He spent hours with me talking about the movie and what’s important about it,” says Banks.
Lee Daniels (Precious, Empire) was slated to direct, but became too busy with TV. Then Tom Shadyac, who’d directed a number of big-budget movies in the ’90s and early 2000s (Ace Ventura) but now makes documentaries, expressed interest.
Shadyac wanted to make a movie about justice, too. In fact, Brooks says he was pleasantly surprised at the passion of everyone involved. “The financiers at ShivHans Pictures (Captain Fantastic) came out for a whole day and learned about wrongful convictions. Everyone in the production company has come to Cal Western and sat in on classes. A producer showed up last week at a Cal State LA seminar I was giving. They’re trying to understand this story in the context of the bigger story.”
The bigger story, says Brooks, shows how an innocent person could plead guilty. “Plea bargaining is what our entire criminal justice system is now. 95% of the cases plea out. So all the stuff you see on TV and in movies about trials is very nice, but only 5% of cases go to trial. And if we’re to the point where the sentences are so great and the risks are so great if you go to trial, you do a plea. Brian’s case is a beautiful and horrendous example of how that happens. You have a 17-year-old kid sitting in a room with his lawyer, telling him there’s an all-white jury out there, you’re going to be found guilty, you’re going to be sentenced to 44-years-to-life, or you take this deal and you might get probation. This kid’s choosing between door number one and door number two. Door number one is basically walking through to a casino, where if I lose, I go to prison for the rest of my life. Door number two is a deal where I know I’m not going to prison for the rest of my life. Worst case scenario is I do a little more time. I may just go home. When you’re in that situation, guilty pleas don’t matter anymore. What matters is the deal that’s on the table.”
Brooks concedes he might have handled the case differently than Banks’ trial attorney, but that’s not the message, he stresses. “It’s about an entire system that pressures people toward plea bargains. It’s an indictment of the entire system. And it’s an indictment on the fact that our country is one of the few countries on the planet that gives sentences like we do. In most civilized countries, life sentences are 20 years. It creates a power imbalance where you have no choice. And that’s what the movie is really about.”
The movie project is moving fast, with casting now in progress, and they hope to start filming soon.