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California Innocence Project Works with San Diego DA to Overturn Wrongful Conviction

Uriah Courtney (center) with California Innocence Project Director Justin Brooks and attorney Alissa Bjerkhoel

Today, the San Diego County District Attorney’s office formally dismissed charges of kidnapping and sexual assault against Uriah Courtney. The California Innocence Project client served more than eight years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Judge Peter C. Deddeh reversed Courtney’s conviction in May after the California Western School of Law clinical program worked with the San Diego County District Attorney’s office to obtain testing of biological material from the victim’s clothing and introduce those results into the DNA CODIS databank, where they obtained a match with another man who bore a striking physical resemblance to Courtney and lived in the area where the crime occurred.

California Western Professor Justin Brooks praised District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis for her cooperation in the investigation. “The California Innocence Project has worked hand-in-hand with the District Attorney’s Office to identify cases where there may have been a wrongful conviction,” Brooks said. “This case is a great example of how justice can be done when there is cooperation between the defense and the prosecution. It is a great day for Uriah Courtney, his family, and for the criminal justice system.”

Details of the case
On November 24, 2004, a man grabbed a young woman off the street in Lemon Grove, threw her down in some bushes near a stoplight, and started to sexually assault her. The woman managed to escape, but shortly before the attack saw a man staring at her from an old, light-colored truck.

The victim and one eyewitness were unable to provide enough information to create a composite sketch of the suspect, however, a truck matching the description was reported to the police. The truck was owned by the stepfather of a local man named Uriah Courtney, a North Park resident who closely matched the physical description of the suspect.

Despite her stated uncertainty, the victim testified at trial that she was sure of her identification of both the truck and of Courtney. A jury rendered a guilty verdict and the court sentenced Courtney to life in prison for kidnapping and sexual assault.

California Western attorneys uncover new evidence
At the time of Courtney’s conviction, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department performed DNA testing but did not obtain any meaningful results. In 2010, when newer and more discriminating testing was available than was available at the time of trial, the California Innocence Project determined that further DNA testing would be appropriate and opened an investigation of the case.

With the cooperation of the District Attorney’s office, the victim’s clothing was re-submitted for DNA testing. The male profile was run through the Combined DNA Index System―a national databank containing convicted offender profiles―and matched a white male who bore a striking physical resemblance to Courtney and lived three miles from the crime scene.

“The National Institute of Justice has funded us to do DNA testing in cases such as this because identifications have often proved to be faulty,” said Alissa Bjerkhoel, one of Courtney’s attorneys with the California Innocence Project. “Flawed identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions.”

About the California Innocence Project
Founded in 1999, the California Innocence Project is a California Western School of Law clinical program dedicated to the release of wrongfully convicted inmates and providing an outstanding educational experience for students enrolled in the clinic. The California Innocence Project reviews approximately 2,000 claims from inmates each year and has earned the exoneration of 10 wrongfully convicted clients since its inception.

California Innocence Project Director Justin P. Brooks, along with staff attorneys Alissa Bjerkhoel and Michael Semanchik, recently completed a 712-mile Innocence March from San Diego to Sacramento to protest the incarceration of their innocent clients, bring attention to the cause of wrongful convictions, and present clemency petitions for “The California 12” to Governor Jerry Brown. Uriah Courtney joined the attorneys for portions of the march, including the final mile in Sacramento.