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Back in Michigan, Brooks asked students from one of his criminal law classes if any of them wanted to help prove Mulero’s innocence.

“Four brave, stupid souls raised their hands. We spent the next few years getting her death sentence reversed, investigating her case, finding tons of evidence that showed she is innocent. We got her off of death row. The sad part of the story is, 20 years later, I am still working on her case because I have never been able to get her plea withdrawn.”

Meeting Mulero changed the trajectory of Brooks’s life. “One night, after visiting Mulero, I was sitting in my car on a freezing Chicago evening and I decided this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I quit my job. California has the largest prison system in the world, so I thought this would be a great place to start. The California Western School of Law had a small criminal defense institute that had a little bit of budget for what I wanted to do. They hired me on as director and I turned it into the California Innocence Project.

Among Brooks’s main agendas, apart from exonerating the wrongly accused and training capable lawyers, is shedding light on the death penalty. He explains, “A government report that came out last year estimated that 4 percent of people on death row are innocent. That is a lot of people. Each one is a human being that is going to be executed. I am 100 percent against the death penalty. There is something fundamentally immoral about a system that makes as many mistakes as ours does to have the death penalty. I think we are very close to getting rid of it in California. We were so close in the last election. I believe that [the Innocent Project] is part of changing the public’s perception on the death penalty. Every time the public sees an innocent person being walked off of death row they realize that our system is flawed.”

In 2012, California voters were given the opportunity to pass Proposition 34, which would have replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment. Proposition 34 was narrowly defeated with 52 percent voting against it.

When it comes to capital punishment, California has a rich history. State-sanctioned executions began in 1851. In those days, executions were usually done via hangings. That method was replaced in popularity with lethal gas nearly a hundred years later. Due to the inhumane nature of death by lethal gas, only four states (California, Missouri, Arizona, and Wyoming) continue its use. Currently, five methods of execution are used in the United States: electrocution, firing squad, hanging, lethal gas, and lethal injection. From 1976 to June 18, 2015, there were 1411 executions in the U.S. Of those, 1236 were performed by lethal injection, 158 by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, 3 by hanging, and 3 by firing squad.

The California Innocence Project team

Only 19 states do not have the death penalty. Meanwhile, Brooks sees to it that the young law students interning with the California Innocence Project don’t make the same error Mulero’s lawyer did when he pled his client up to the death penalty. The California Innocence Project’s intern program is based upon the medical school model. Young law students get extensive hands-on experience before going out and practicing law on their own.

The day of my visit, Brooks is hosting the group’s annual information seminar for new students interested in becoming interns. In a high-ceilinged auditorium, 50 or so anxious law students await the presentation. The room falls to a hush when Brooks takes the microphone.

“Every year we take 12 to 14 students into our program. Each law student is assigned their own caseload, anywhere from 7 to 10 cases. That is a very heavy burden. Those cases represent an innocent person who is in prison. If you don’t work on those cases, that person is not getting out. Most of our clients will die in prison if we lose their cases. We are their last resort.”

Brooks looks around the room letting the heaviness of his words sink in before addressing the crowd to add, “Today, the best way to start is for you to hear from one of our exonerees. Please welcome Uriah Courtney.”

By the time Courtney finishes telling his story, members of the crowd are weeping.

Uriah Courtney still struggles

Courtney politely sprinkles his sentences with “please” and “thank you” and “ma’am” and “sir.” His brown hair matches his brown eyes. He is small of stature and soft-spoken. Two years ago he was serving a life sentence at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego for a crime he did not commit.

Newspaper clippings from past Innocence Project cases

In 2004, a Lemon Grove teenager was walking home when she was raped on a busy street. A witness came forward, a man who did not offer assistance at the time of the attack because he believed it was a domestic altercation taking place between a young couple. He gave a description to the police of the man. The victim told law enforcement that earlier in the day a man in a truck with a camper lid had ogled her. She thought that the driver of the vehicle might be the same man who raped her. The police took down a description of the truck. Weeks later, a vehicle matching the description was spotted parked in the driveway of a Lemon Grove home. It was a work vehicle belonging to Courtney’s stepfather, who was also his boss. The vehicle in question was parked in front of the home of a man Courtney worked with.

“When they made the connection with the truck, the police got photos of my stepdad and my coworker. They showed those to the victim. She said neither of them attacked her. They dug a little deeper and found out that my name was connected to my mom and stepdad’s address. Because I had been arrested before, they used my booking photo and put together a six-pack line up. They showed it to the victim and she picked out three guys from the photos and said I looked the most similar.”

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Comments

jnojr Aug. 19, 2015 @ 12:50 p.m.

"The California Institution for Women in Chino is dusty and dilapidated. It looks like an abandoned high school outfitted with razor-wire-topped fencing and look-out towers with armed guards."

It's a prison, not a spa or resort.

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sryan921 Aug. 25, 2015 @ 8:24 a.m.

I think it's obvious she was trying to give us a visual of what she saw, not complain that it wasn't nice enough.

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jnojr Aug. 19, 2015 @ 12:55 p.m.

“California has a stereotype of being this hippie-granola-crunchy place. It’s really not. We have the largest death row in the United States with 743 death-row inmates. We have the most severe sentencing structure with three strikes. It’s the belly of the beast,”

California has, by far, the biggest population in the nation. Over 10% of the nation's population lives here. 700-someodd death row denizens is nothing, and there are so many because we won't execute their sentences!

As for "the most severe sentencing structure", BS! Our dauntless state Legislators and weepy, hand-wringing voters are constantly reducing the effectiveness of our penal system. We DON'T have a real Three Strikes system any more... we let all sorts of violent predators go all the time because what they were caught for this time wasn't quite bad enough.

I'm tired of this silly, bleating nonsense about how we're just too rough on criminals. We aren't. We aren't nearly tough enough. repeat felons should be in prison for life. They should be making license plates or doing other hard labor. Instead, we weep over them, and try to "understand" them, and "show compassion", and cry about their poor childhoods, and give them endless second chances. It's no wonder why there are so many criminals... crime pays in this state!

1

Pidge Aug. 19, 2015 @ 4:35 p.m.

@jnojr: Indeed. However, there is no excuse for the abuse of law that puts innocent people in prison, nor executing them. Ambrose Bierce said "The law is where you go in as a pig and come out as a sausage."

Just pray that it never happens to you, my friend. And no matter how law-abiding you are, it COULD happen to you, or your wife/husband, daughter/son, mother/father, etc.

Having worked in the court system for 32 years, I have seen things that would make you weep. Pray you're never invited as a defendant - unless you have actually done the deed.

2

Sjtorres Aug. 20, 2015 @ 11:53 a.m.

Meanwhile the UC and CSU Boards pass a "law" saying that those accused of sexual assault are, in fact, guilty until proven innocent.

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ProtectTheInnocent March 18, 2016 @ 12:42 p.m.

Kimberly doesn't belong in prison. I have no idea what that second jury was thinking, or I should say not thinking. And even before that, they were insane to even bring charges against her in the first place! There was NO blood on her or her clothes, and yes she was found still dressed in the clothes witnesses had seen her dressed in when she'd been out earlier. When Kimberly had been given a polygraph test, she needed a +6 to pass, and she got a plus 12 or 16 something like that. She was SO far from being deceptive ! She had told the truth! Unfortunately, there had been someone in Ozzy's life who didn't make out so well on their polygraph test. That person was Ozzy's ex-girlfriend. The same woman Ozzy found himself having to take a restraining order out against ! When the ex-girlfriend was questioned by police, she even went as far as to say she hated Ozzy being with Kimberly. She hated Kimberly. She was extreme! And the circle she hung in were less then desirable also. She admitted to being angry over the fact that Ozzy wanted to marry Kimberly. There were more reasons to look at this woman as a suspect for Ozzy's murder than to ever look at or suspect Kimberly. Even if there had been a discrepancy in the time of what time Kimberly got home, she said about 2:00 a.m. and Jeff Dills said 1:30 a.m. The coroner's report places Ozzy's time of death at 12:30 a.m. ! Ozzy had been attacked and killed long before Kimberly ever got home no matter which time you go by. They NEED to go back and look at that insane ex-girlfriend all over again, who didn't even pass her polygraph test. And her circle of undesirable cohorts. Justice has not been served in Ozzy's death, the real murderer is not sitting behind bars, and too many senseless years of freedom have already been taken from an innocent woman!

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