Wrongful Conviction Day 2017 Panel: “Wrongful Convictions, the Death Penalty, and Reforming the Justice System in California”

Story and photos by Tom McMullen

More than 20 years ago, Alan Giminez was found guilty of murder for the death of his newborn daughter. Less than two years ago, Luis Vargas was sitting in a prison cell inside one of America’s most dangerous maximum-security prisons, having been found guilty on three counts of rape. For their convictions, both men received life sentences. On Oct. 2, both men sat before a rapt audience in a lecture hall at California Western as free and innocent men.

The panel, hosted by San Diego Union-Tribune writer Greg Moran, was one of several events hosted by the Innocence Network as part of Wrongful Conviction Day, an annual day dedicated to raising awareness of the various issues, causes, and remedies involved in wrongful convictions. Alongside California Innocence Project (CIP) director and co-founder Justin Brooks, who spearheaded the legal efforts to exonerate them, Mr. Giminez and Mr. Vargas answered questions and spoke candidly about the years they spent fighting for the liberty that was taken from them, as well as the struggles they are still forced to endure as a result.

While discussing the primary causes of wrongful convictions, Mr. Brooks described the public’s reluctance to address the issue as a means of self-preservation—most people are unwilling to confront the reality that our criminal justice system convicts innocent people simply because they don’t want to believe it. Mr. Giminez and Mr. Vargas are living proof that decent, law-abiding citizens are not guaranteed justice; that the injustice wrought by a wrongful conviction resonates far beyond the prison cell of the condemned and into the lives of every citizen.

Mr. Giminez and Mr. Vargas play a vital role in representing what is at stake when innocent people are wrongfully convicted. Families of the convicted are upended as they struggle to advocate for their loved one on the outside, often having to drive hours just to see them for a few minutes. Plans are put on hold and dreams are deferred indefinitely, usually forever.

The stories told by Mr. Giminez and Mr. Vargas are tragically more common than most of us would like to believe—more than 2,100 people have been exonerated in America since 1989, totaling more than 18,250 years lost due to wrongful convictions. While it is currently unknown just how many innocent people might be in our country’s prisons, credible estimates range from thousands to more than one hundred thousand.

Each year, CIP receives more than 2,000 requests for assistance from inmates claiming they are factually innocent of the crimes for which they were found guilty. Unfortunately, the limited resources and avenues available mean that only a small percentage of those cases can be taken on by the California Innocence Project. It was this fact that inspired an idea in 2013 by Mr. Brooks called “Free the California 12”—an initiative aimed at compelling Governor Jerry Brown to grant clemency to 12 CIP clients, Mr. Giminez among them, identified as being factually innocent. As part of the effort to bring attention to the cause, Mr. Brooks and several attorneys from CIP walked (yes, walked) their petitions for clemency from their offices at Cal Western in San Diego more than 500 miles to the Governor’s office in Sacramento. While Governor Brown has not, as of yet, granted clemency to any of the California 12, five of them (including Mr. Giminez) have since been released through litigation by CIP’s attorneys.

More than 2,100 people have been exonerated in America since 1989, totaling more than 18,250 years lost due to wrongful convictions.

Nonetheless, the efforts to convince Governor Brown to free the remaining members of the “California 12” continue to this day. Every morning, Mr. Brooks (@Justinobrooks) tweets to Governor Brown (@JerryBrownGov) with a friendly reminder about the seven innocent people still sitting in California prisons, along with a request for him to do the right thing and grant them clemency. If you want to help bring awareness to the “California 12” and wrongful convictions in California, retweet all of Mr. Brooks’ tweets to Governor Brown and tweet your own messages of support with the hashtags “#FreeTheCA12” and “#XONR8”.

California Innocence project client Luis Vargas waking from his nightmare: the moment he learned his conviction was overturned.
California Innocence Project client and exoneree Alan Giminez celebrating his freedom at an Innocence Network event after 24 years of being incarcerated for a crime that he did not commit.

Tom McMullen is a clinical intern with California Western’s California Innocence Project.

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