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sad part of the story is, 20 years later, I am still working on her case because I have never been able to get her plea withdrawn.”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.
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.
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.”