CIP frees 30 exonerees in less than two decades

By Taylor McElroy, CIP Reporter, with contributions by Sara Gold

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CIP managing attorney Mike Semanchik, left, with Horace Roberts on the day of his release.

Horace Roberts left Avenal State Prison on Oct. 3 after more than two decades of imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit. Back in the 1990s, his truck was found parked near his lover’s dead body.

California Innocence Project (CIP), a Cal Western clinic that investigates wrongful convictions, began investigating his case in 2003. In 2017, CIP discovered that DNA under the victim’s fingernails matched with a relative of the victim’s husband. After further investigation, both the husband and the relative are now being charged with the victim’s murder. The theory is that the husband killed his cheating wife and framed her lover in retribution.

“These are the days we live for at the California Innocence Project,” said Justin Brooks, director and co-founder of CIP. “Horace Roberts is free and home with his family, and justice is finally being served.”

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Innocence March

innocence_march2Justin Brooks marched 100 miles from Berkeley to Sacramento, beginning on Sept. 30 and finishing with a rally on Oct. 7 on the steps of the state Capitol building. The march was intended to persuade Governor Jerry Brown to grant clemency to the “California 12,” twelve wrongfully convicted prisoners with strong cases of innocence. Back in 2013, Brooks marched more than 700 miles from California Western School of Law to the Capitol building to deliver 12 clemency petitions. Since then, six of the twelve inmates have been freed — most recently Quintin Morris, who was granted parole on Sept. 27. Morris was wrongfully convicted of participating in a shooting that took place back in 1991. He will soon be released from prison, making him the thirtieth exoneree freed by CIP since the clinic began in 1999.

“Walking 100 miles is nothing compared to the suffering our clients deal with every day,” Brooks said. “It was the least I could do to bring attention to their suffering and all of those who are wrongfully incarcerated.”

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2L Elika Morris shares exoneree Quintin Morris’ journey at the Sacramento rally Oct. 7.

CIP staff and student interns flew to Sacramento to attend the rally. Elika Morris, a 2L student intern, spoke to the crowd to share exoneree Quintin Morris’ story.

Elika Morris recalled, “The crowd gathered at the steps that day and heard a man’s story, rather than a mere case; the crowd recognized Quintin as a person, rather than just his name. People showed their support by coming into Sacramento from out of town, stopping as they walked by, and cheering us on as they drove past. This showed me that people actually care about the issue of wrongful conviction and appreciate our efforts to raise awareness.”

XONR8 Gala

gala_photo“It’s hard for anyone to imagine what it’s like being innocent in prison. So, even though I’ve been doing this kind of work for 25 years, I still have no idea what it’s like to be one of my clients. What it’s like to go through that nightmare.”

Justin Brooks, director of CIP, uttered these words in a video broadcasted to the 350+ attendees at the 2018 XONR8 Gala on Sept. 27. Founded in 1999, the California Innocence Project works tirelessly to get innocent people out of prison and receives over 2,000 requests for assistance per year from inmates claiming to be factually innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Due to limited resources and case law limiting pursuit of post-conviction remedies, CIP can only represent a small percentage of the requests received each year and thus depends on fundraising efforts, social media campaigns, and other non-conventional forums to support and shed light on its mission.

gale_2Held at The Headquarters in downtown San Diego, the annual gala provides students, legal professionals, and community members a chance to rally together to support CIP and its mission by purchasing raffle tickets, participating in live and silent auctions, or by simply attending the event. This annual fundraiser raises money for filing innocence petitions, visiting innocent clients in prison, conducting DNA testing, and other necessary aspects of advocating for innocent clients, post-conviction.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been over 2,270 exonerations nationwide since 1989; collectively these exonerees spent over 20,080 years incarcerated before being cleared of all charges based on evidence of innocence. Since its creation, CIP has trained hundreds of law students to be better advocates for their future clients and has been instrumental in changing several California laws to provide more concrete avenues for post-conviction relief.

Since its inception, CIP has freed 28 innocent people from prison who, collectively, spent 377 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Some of these exonerees even attended this year’s gala, including, but not limited to, Glenn Boyd, Reggie Cole, Uriah Courtney, Joe Diaz, Alan Gimenez, Kimberly Long, Guy Miles, Adam Riojas, Luis Vargas, and Brian Banks.

gala_3The gala also featured a video with comments from other CIP staff members, including attorneys Alissa Bjerkhoel and Audrey McGuinn.

“Anybody can be in a wrong place at the wrong time. And innocent people can be accused and convicted for things that they didn’t do,” McGuinn said. Suddenly, the audience, too, can feel themselves in the shoes of those who have been wrongfully convicted; they can imagine what it might be like if they lived this nightmare and felt their own personal Sword of Damocles as they spent years incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. How would they handle it? What would they do? How would they prove their innocence?

Bjerkhoel explained, “These wrongful convictions are…devastating. I always think of it like, you drop a pebble into the lake and it’s a calm lake…how those ripples would just spread out.”

Bjerkhoel was not personally in attendance at the gala because she was in San Francisco arguing for the release of Quintin Morris, another member of the CA 12. She was successful! Morris will be the sixth member of the CA 12 to be freed since 2013.

Taylor McElroy, 3L, is a clinical intern with the California Innocence Project. 

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