California Innocence Project

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California Innocence Project
Brooks Atkins.jpg
Tim Atkins greeting family after release. Prof. Justin Brooks, the director of CIP (in suit), stands behind Atkins.
Abbreviation CIP
Formation 1999 (1999)
Founder Justin Brooks, Jan Stiglitz
Type Non-profit organization
Purpose Provides pro bono legal services to individuals who maintain their factual innocence of crime(s) for which they have been convicted
Headquarters California Western School of Law
  • San Diego
Affiliations Innocence Network

The California Innocence Project (CIP) is a non-profit organization at California Western School of Law in San Diego, California, United States, which provides pro bono legal services to individuals who maintain their factual innocence of crime(s) for which they have been convicted. CIP's mission is to exonerate wrongly convicted inmates through the use of DNA and other evidence. Since 2003, CIP has succeeded in exonerating 28 incarcerated individuals that have spent more than 220 years in prison.[1] As a law school clinical program, CIP provides educational experience to students enrolled in its clinic. Working alongside CIP staff attorneys, clinic students investigate and litigate cases where there is strong evidence of innocence. CIP attorneys and students pursue cases by securing expert witnesses and advocating for their clients during evidentiary hearings and trials.[2] CIP currently has 13 cases pending of persons who the organization believes were wrongly convicted.[3] Each year, CIP reviews more than 2,000 claims of innocence from inmates convicted in Southern California.[4]


The California Innocence Project was founded in 1999 at California Western School of Law in San Diego, California, by Director Justin Brooks and Law Professor Jan Stiglitz. CIP was the fourth innocence project to form in the United States as part of the national innocence movement[5] or Innocence Network.


The California Innocence Project has secured the release of the following innocent people, many of whom otherwise might have remained incarcerated for the rest of their lives:

Brian Banks[edit]

Brian Banks was exonerated in 2012 after his accuser recanted her testimony that Banks raped and kidnapped her. Faced with a possible 41 years to life sentence, he accepted a plea deal that included five years in prison, five years of probation, and registering as a sex offender.[6] The California Innocence Project took on the case after Banks came to the project with compelling evidence of innocence. After several months of investigation, the Los Angeles District Attorney agreed to dismiss the case against Banks.[7] On August 20, 2012, Banks became an advocate for the innocence movement by helping the California Innocence Project deliver petition signatures to the California Attorney General in the Daniel Larsen case.[8] On August 29, 2012, Banks continued his advocacy by helping deliver petition signatures to the Nicaraguan embassy in the Jason Puracal case.[9] Since his exoneration, Banks tried out for numerous NFL teams before signing with the Atlanta Falcons on April 3, 2013.[10]

Luis Vargas[edit]

In June 1998, a young woman standing at a Los Angeles bus stop was taken at knife point to a deserted parking lot and raped by an unknown assailant. A bagel shop manager, Luis Vargas, was arrested and charged with this crime and with assaults on two other young women. Despite the fact that coworkers at the bagel shop placed him there at the time of the rape (which occurred 20 miles away), based upon ambiguous and contradictory identifications made by the three women, and upon a prior conviction for raping a former girlfriend, Vargas was convicted of the crimes.[11][12] Vargas stated at the time of his sentencing to 55 years to life in prison on December 7, 1999, "As far as I’m concerned, [the] individual [who] really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there."[11] Vargas' prophecy proved correct, as rapes and other assaults on women with a similar modus operandi continued to take place, not only after Vargas was sentenced, but even during the time between his arrest and conviction.[12] The CIP became interested in Vargas' case in 2011, when Vargas sent the organization press clippings about recent assaults similar to those of 1998, which were attributed to a serial attacker known as the "Teardrop Rapist."[11] The CIP requested that the clothes of the 1998 rape victim be examined for DNA, using technology not available at the time. The DNA samples did not match Vargas' DNA, but did match DNA taken from recent victims whose attacker matched the profile of the Teardrop Rapist. In September 2015, Vargas was exonerated of the crimes for which he had served nearly 16 years in prison.[11][12] It was the CIP's third DNA exoneration and its 20th overall.[11] Vargas is currently engaged in a civil suit against the Los Angeles Police Department, prosecutors and others, claiming that exonerating evidence was withheld at his original trial.[12] Vargas' case was noted in an article citing the record number of exonerations that occurred in 2015.[13]

Timothy Atkins[edit]

Timothy Atkins was exonerated after 23 years in prison when witness Denise Powell recanted her testimony that Atkins committed a murder.[14] Based on Powell's recantation, attorney Justin Brooks of CIP brought a state habeas corpus action on Atkins's behalf. On February 8, 2007, Judge Michael A. Tynan granted the writ of habeas corpus, saying that the trial testimony of witness Maria Gonzalez had been "highly questionable, if not totally unreliable" and that no reasonable judge or jury could have found Atkins guilty without Powell's now recanted testimony.[15] On April 6, 2007, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office dropped the charges.[16] Atkins and the California Innocence Project have since been fighting to get compensation from California for his wrongful conviction.[17]

Kimberly Long[edit]

On October 5, 2003, Kimberly "Kim" Long went out bar-hopping with her boyfriend, Oswaldo "Ozzy" Conde and a mutual friend, Jeff Dills. When they returned to the apartment in Corona that Conde and Long shared, the couple got into an intense argument and Long left the apartment, accompanied by Dills, to cool off. Dills later dropped Long off at her apartment, where she found Conde brutally bludgeoned to death, the entire place covered with blood.[18] She immediately called 911. No blood was found on Long. After being taken to the police station and questioned, Long was asked to take a polygraph test and passed it. Friends of the deceased man pointed to Conde's former girlfriend as a possible suspect. Dills, however, told police that he had dropped Long off at 1:20 am, rather than at 2:00 am, as she had told police. Police theorized that Long could have committed the murder of Conde after 1:20 am and before she called 911 at 2:09 am.[18] (Dills died shortly afterwards in a motorcycle accident and thus could not be questioned about the time discrepancy.)[19] Long was tried twice for Conde's murder: the first trial resulted in a hung jury, and the second resulted in a second-degree murder conviction. The judge at the second trial, Patrick F. Magers, stated that if it had been a court trial, rather than a jury trial, he would have acquitted the defendant. "This is one of those classic cases where the person who finds the dead person ends up becoming a suspect," said Brooks.[18][19][20] After the CIP became involved in Long's case, they got the case retried in front of the same judge, with forensic evidence proving that Conde had definitely died before 1:20 am that morning; that, even assuming Dills was correct about the time he dropped Long off, it would have been physically impossible for Long to kill Conde and conceal her involvement within the period of less than an hour between 1:20 am and 2:09 am; and that a cigarette butt in the apartment revealed DNA from an unknown male. On June 10, 2016, Judge Magers reversed Long's original conviction, determining that she had been inadequately defended, and she was freed on bail after six years in prison.[18][21]

John Stoll[edit]

John Stoll was sentenced to 40 years in prison, and later exonerated in 2006 after several child victims recanted their testimony that Stoll had molested them.[22] CIP, in conjunction with the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law, uncovered new evidence that disputed the boys' testimony and were granted an evidentiary hearing. Four witnesses who had testified against Stoll as children admitted that the sexual abuse stories they told as children were lies and that law enforcement officials, social workers, and prosecutors had coerced them into making false allegations against Stoll.[23] At the conclusion of the hearing, Stoll's conviction was overturned.[24] He had spent 20 years in prison for his alleged crime. Stoll's was one of many problematic Kern County child abuse cases, of which 34 were overturned on appeal.[25]

Kenneth Marsh[edit]

Kenneth Marsh was exonerated in 2004 after the San Diego District Attorney's office agreed to Marsh's habeas petition.[26] Marsh was originally convicted in the death of his 33-month-old baby. After uncovering evidence from medical experts that proved Marsh's innocence, CIP, along with attorney Tracy Emblem, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus on Marsh's behalf in 2002 seeking a new trial.[27] At the defense's request, the San Diego District Attorney's Office hired an outside medical expert to review all of the evidence. After the review, San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis asked the court to grant Marsh's habeas corpus petition and release him until a new trial could be scheduled. Shortly afterward, the D.A.'s office dismissed the charges and Marsh was released after 21 years of incarceration.[28]

Adam Riojas[edit]

Adam Riojas was exonerated in 2004 after spending 13 years in prison for the second-degree murder of Jose Rodarte.[29] Riojas' father later admitted to being involved in the crime.[30] The California Innocence Project appeared on Riojas' behalf at his parole hearing. After listening to testimony related to Riojas Sr.'s confession, a deputy district attorney stated on the record that he was "seriously concerned that this inmate may have been wrongfully convicted."[31] Riojas was released after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger chose not to block the unanimous decision of the parole board, which had granted Riojas parole for the second consecutive year.[32]

Jason Kindle[edit]

Jason Kindle was exonerated in 2003 after spending four years in prison for armed robbery of an Office Depot store, where Kindle was a contracted janitor.[33][34] He was sentenced under California's "Three-strikes" law to 70 years to life.[35] The California Innocence Project, working with a local Los Angeles attorney, reexamined the evidence presented at trial and discovered surveillance video of the crime showing the perpetrator to stand 6 foot 6 inches tall; Kindle is only 6 feet tall. The charges were ultimately dismissed, and Kindle was released.[36]

Rafael Madrigal[edit]

Rafael Madrigal was exonerated in 2009 after spending nine years in prison for an attempted murder he did not commit. Homicide investigators focused on Madrigal after the victim and a friend of the victim identified him as the shooter from Sheriff's Department photo lineups.[37] With the help of the California Innocence Project, Madrigal was able to bring forth evidence that his defense counsel failed to present at an evidentiary hearing, including witness testimony that Madrigal was more than 50 miles from the crime scene when the shooting occurred,[38] and a recording of Madrigal’s co-defendant admitting that Madrigal was not involved. The conviction was overturned by a federal judge citing Madrigal's attorney for failing to present this crucial evidence.[39]

Reggie Cole[edit]

Reggie Cole was exonerated in 2009 after spending 16 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. With the help of attorney Christopher Plourd and the California Innocence Project, the case against Cole fell apart. CIP filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Cole alleging that Cole's trial attorney failed to investigate and present exculpatory evidence; the prosecution withheld material, exculpatory evidence; false evidence was introduced against Cole at his trial; and the prosecutor engaged in misconduct.[40] On April 8, 2009, Deputy District Attorney Hyman Sisman conceded on Cole's habeas petition that Cole received ineffective assistance of counsel and on April 15, 2009, Judge Jerry E. Johnson of the Los Angeles Superior Court vacated the murder conviction.[41]

William Richards[edit]

Shortly after midnight on August 11, 1993, in a desert area of San Bernardino, Pamela Richards was found by her husband, William "Bill" Richards, strangled and beaten to death, her skull crushed, outside the motor home they shared. Bill Richards had to call 911 three times before the arrival of the local police, who failed to secure the crime scene. As a result, before detectives began investigating the murder in the morning, dogs had invaded and contaminated the scene. The police and detectives also failed to conduct routine time-of-death testing to determine whether or not Pamela might have been killed while Bill was still at work. Because the police had no other suspects, they charged Richards with the crime, despite his having no injuries suggesting he had struggled with his wife and despite the lack of a confession. After three trials (the first two had resulted in hung juries), Richards was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.[42] The CIP, taking up Richards' case, established at a 2009 hearing that there were DNA traces from the crime scene that belonged to neither Pamela nor Bill. They also produced two bite mark experts who had testified against Richards at his original trials, who now claimed that current science exonerated Richards. San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville reversed his earlier conviction, ruling that the developments undermined the prosecution's case and pointed "unerringly to innocence."[42][43] However, the district attorney appealed the judge's decision to the California Court of Appeal, which reversed it. In 2012 the California Supreme Court refused to overturn the appeals court's judgment. In the 4-3 decision, the majority stated that Richards failed to prove that the bite mark testimony was false because "experts still could not definitively rule out [his] teeth as a possible source of the mark."[44] Two years later, the CIP successful introduced legislation that allowed experts to recant their testimony in California trials. In May, 2016, the California Supreme Court reversed Richards' conviction. In the following month, Richards walked free after 23 years behind bars.[42][45][46][47]

Daniel Larsen[edit]

Daniel Larsen was exonerated in 2010 yet remained incarcerated until March 19, 2013 because the California Attorney General, Kamala Harris, continued to appeal.[48] Based largely on eyewitness identification by two police officers, Larsen was convicted in 1999 of being in possession of a concealed knife under California’s Three Strikes Law. Because he had prior felony convictions, Larsen was sentenced to 28 years to life in prison. The California Innocence Project, which began representing Larsen in 2002, found witnesses, including a former chief of police and the actual owner of the knife, who testified seeing a different man holding the knife.[49] In 2010, a judge ordered Larsen's release, finding that he was "actually innocent" of the crime and that Larsen's constitutional rights were violated, because his attorney was incompetent. Despite the ruling, Larsen remained in prison for two more years while the state attorney general challenged the judge's ruling because Larsen had missed the appeal deadline.[50] In 2013 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling and freed Larsen after 14 years in prison.[51][52]

Uriah Courtney[edit]

Uriah Courtney was exonerated in 2013 when the San Diego County District Attorney’s office formally dismissed charges of kidnapping and sexual assault.[53] In 2004, Courtney was sentenced to life in prison for the crimes.[54] In 2010 the California Innocence Project reviewed Courtney's case and eventually convinced the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office to retest DNA evidence from the case using more advanced technology. The results eliminated Courtney and linked another man to the crime.[55] After eight years of incarceration, Courtney was released.[56]

Jason Puracal[edit]

Jason Puracal was exonerated in 2012 after an appeals court overturned his 22-year sentence in a Nicaragua maximum-security prison. Despite lack of evidence, Puracal was arrested November 2010 in San Juan del Sur and convicted of money-laundering, drug charges, and organized crime in August 2011.[57] The California Innocence Project helped bring Puracal's case before a three-judge appellate panel in August 2012. On September 12, 2012, he was acquitted of all charges and ordered released.[58]

Michael Hanline[edit]

In November 1978, the body of truck driver J.T. McGarry, who had been shot multiple times, was found over 25 miles from his Ventura County home.[59] Michael Hanline was suspected of having murdered him, with the help of an accomplice, because he and McGarry had both been involved with the same woman.[60][61] Largely on this woman's testimony, Hanline was sentenced to life without parole in 1980.[62] Soon after the CIP was established in 1999, the organization received correspondence from Hanline claiming his innocence. The CIP spent years investigating this case.[59][60] They eventually discovered that a since-deceased attorney named Bruce Robertson had attempted to implicate Hanline in order to direct suspicion away from his own clients, and had intimidated potential witnesses. A witness had even placed Robertson at McGarry's home on the night of his murder.[59] In addition, DNA testing pointed to Hanline's innocence, and it was established that the woman who testified against him had been on drugs, both on the night of the murder and at the time of her testimony.[62] On November 24, 2014, Hanline was released from Ventura County Court a free man, and in April of the following year, a judge dismissed all charges against him, as the district attorney had decided not to retry the case.[62] Having served 36 years behind bars, Hanline was the longest-incarcerated person whose conviction was reversed in the history of the State of California.[59][60][61][62]

Scott McMahon[edit]

Scott McMahon is a United States citizen who was wrongfully imprisoned without charge in the Philippines from April, 2011 to August, 2016.[63] McMahon was living in a subdivision with his longtime girlfriend and their two children when he struck up a friendship with a neighbor named Jan Marcel, who had a highly tumultuous relationship with his wife, Dolores San Pablo Vermeulen.[64] One day, Vermeulen brought the police in to raid McMahon's home in search of Marcel. This event had an extremely traumatic effect on McMahon's son, and because of the damage to his son's mental health, McMahon brought a lawsuit against Vermeulen for child abuse.[63][64] When all her attempts to get the lawsuit dropped failed, Vermeulen accused McMahon of having raped her six months previously. A medical examination showed no sign of rape, and McMahon could prove that he was on vacation hundreds of miles away with his family at the time of the alleged assault.[63][64] Despite the fact that McMahon could not physically have perpetrated the alleged rape, and the lack of any evidence that a crime had even taken place, McMahon (who had no idea at the time that he had been subpoenaed) was arrested in a restaurant on April 7, 2011, in front of television news cameras.[64] McMahon was held in prison conditions described by The David House Agency, which is handling his case, as "subhuman."[64] Vermeulen sent a friend to both McMahon and his girlfriend, offering to drop the rape charge if he would drop the lawsuit against her and also pay her off: a clear attempt at blackmail. All such efforts were rebuffed by the couple.[63][64] McMahon petitioned to be released on bail, but this request was not even considered until three-and-a-half years after his arrest, when it was denied, the court basing its decision on Vermeulen's accusations, despite the total lack of evidence.[63][64] Finally, on August 2, 2016, a Filipino judge acquitted McMahon of all charges,[65] writing that Vermeulen had accused McMahon as a way to get "leverage" in the 2009 child abuse case.[64] However, McMahon could not leave the country, because the Filipino Bureau of Immigration demanded that he pay them $1000 for every year since his visa expired, despite the fact that it only expired because he had been imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit.[64][66] Due to heavy U.S. government pressure, McMahon was allowed to return home to Seattle on September 4.[67] The California Innocence Project represented Scott McMahon alongside a team of legal and political experts, coordinated by the David House Agency.[63]

Matthew and Grace Huang[edit]

In 2012, a couple from Los Angeles, Matthew and Grace Huang, moved to Doha, in Qatar, where Matthew, an engineer, was working on a long-term project. The Huangs had three adopted African-born black children. On January 15, 2013, one of these children, the Huangs’ eight-year-old daughter, Gloria, died suddenly. Officials arrested Matthew and Grace the following day and subsequently charged them with murdering Gloria, on the theory that the couple must have had some nefarious purpose (perhaps organ harvesting) for adopting Gloria in the first place, as she was black and therefore could not really have been wanted (they argued) by the Huangs. Ultimately, although the prosecution presented no substantial case (medical evidence showed that Gloria had not died of starvation – indeed, the autopsy failed to establish cause of death – and no other evidence of abuse surfaced), the couple were convicted on a lesser charge of child endangerment and sentenced to three years in prison. Even so, the prosecution still wanted to charge them with the more serious offense of child trafficking.[68] Representatives of the Huangs created a YouTube video to plead their case, in which Brooks is filmed saying, "In my 25 years of practicing criminal law, I have never seen as outrageous a prosecution theory as there is in this case" and "this case completely lacks any type of due process."[69][70] In November, 2014, the Huangs' convictions were reversed by the Qatari Appeals Court and they were found innocent; they returned to Los Angeles on December 3.[68]

Case screening[edit]

CIP screens approximately 2,000 claims of wrongful conviction annually. Applicants must be incarcerated and must have at least four years remaining on their sentence. In such cases, new, strong evidence of innocence must exist. CIP only accepts cases where the conviction occurred in the following Southern California counties:

CIP is a law school clinical program. Cases are screened by 12 students. CIP will review a case post-conviction and post-sentencing. CIP will not provide legal assistance during the time of pre-trial or trial.[71]

Innocence March[edit]

On April 27, 2013, CIP staff and supporters began the Innocence March, a 712-mile, two-month-long walk from the California Western School of Law in San Diego to Sacramento, where they presented Governor of California Jerry Brown with clemency petitions for "The California 12". In each of these inmates' cases, attorneys had exhausted all legal recourse despite compelling evidence of innocence.[72]

The California 12[edit]

  • Ed Contreras
  • Alan Gimenez
  • Michael Hanline
  • Suzanne Johnson
  • Kimberly Long
  • Dolores Macias
  • Rodney Patrick McNeal
  • Guy Miles
  • Quintin Morris
  • Kiera Newsome
  • Joann Parks
  • William Richards

Some of these clients had been found innocent by a judge, yet remained incarcerated.[73] The Innocence March ended June 20, 2013, at the steps of the California State Capitol building in Sacramento. Following a rally attended by more than 100 supporters, attorneys from the California Innocence Project met with a staff delegation from the office of Governor Jerry Brown to plead for clemency for The California 12, and to call attention to wrongful convictions and contributing causes, such as flawed eyewitness identification and faulty science.[74]

The Innocence Bill[edit]

The CIP frequently sponsors legislation that favors the wrongfully convicted. In September 2016, a new California law (SB 1134), the so-called "Innocence Bill," co-sponsored by the CIP, passed. This law will make it easier for wrongfully convicted persons to prove their innocence. Brooks said, after the legislation passed, "For many years California has been the most difficult place in the United States to bring a new evidence claim on behalf of innocent clients. Finally, we have a standard where the courts can reverse a conviction based on new evidence that would have led to an acquittal had it been introduced at trial."[75][76]

Wrongful Conviction Day[edit]

The California Innocence Project celebrates International Wrongful Conviction Day annually at the California Western School of Law. On October 4, 2016, the focus of Wrongful Conviction Day was on compensation for those who have been exonerated. Only 29 states have compensation laws on their books, but most exonerees worldwide are left alone to struggle with the problems of getting trained, finding work and otherwise resuming their lives. The purpose of the event was to bring attention to this problem.[77][78]

See also[edit]


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