Statesman of the Month: Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project

  • Justin Brooks (left) stands with his client Brian Banks, who was exonerated after being convicted of rape. Banks went on to sign with the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL.

When Justin Brooks takes on a case, the deck is stacked against him. His clients have already been found guilty of a crime and sentenced to many, many years behind bars. Moreover, the judicial system is often reluctant to reopen his clients’ cases. Justice, it is argued, has been served.

“Wrongful convictions hit every one,” Brooks said. “It also undermines peoples trust in our justice system. We are working toward making it the best possible justice system.”

Take Guy Miles, who spent 18 years of his life behind bars serving a life sentence for a bank robbery he did not commit. Then, in January 2017, when he was 50 years old, his conviction was overturned. Miles now walks a free man because of the work of the California Innocence Project, which Brooks directs.

“An 18-year nightmare is over,” Brooks told reporters in June after Miles was released following the discovery of new evidence. “This is the kind of day we live for.”

 


The California Innocence Project has freed 27 people who were wrongfully convicted of a crime.


 

Brooks established the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law in the late 1990s with three goals: getting people out of prison, changing the justice system for the better, and training law students that will make lasting effects for decades to come. At the time, California’s prison system was overburdened, there were more people on death row than in any other states, and the state had some of the toughest evidence laws on the books for overturning a conviction, Brooks said.  

Now, thanks to the work of staff attorneys and hundreds of law students, the Innocence Project has freed 27 people who were wrongfully convicted of a crime.

The key to overturning wrongful convictions is collaboration between the Innocence Project, law enforcement and the district attorney, Brooks said, though sometimes that is easier said than done. Wrongful convictions are devastating mistakes, and affect many lives. People are hesitant to admit they made a mistake.  But once the Innocence Project is able to pinpoint what went wrong, law enforcement procedures are strengthened.

 


"A lot of what we do is actually improving law enforcement."


 

Brooks’ team has also been successful in initiating key policy changes, such as rules allowing for introducing new evidence for closed cases and improving suspect identification procedures. Not all eyewitness accounts — on which many convictions are based — have proved to be accurate.

“With these changes, law enforcement arrests fewer innocent people and more guilty people,” Brooks said. “So a lot of what we do is actually improving law enforcement.”

And setting people free.

 


 

Every month, we honor a practicing attorney for going above and beyond in service to their clients and community. Do you know a practicing attorney that has served as a model for the legal profession? If so, we want to hear about it. Submit your nominations for Statesman of the Month to Tyler@CypressMagazines.com.