“I’m really excited to be here!”- Welcome to the California Innocence Project

Earlier this month ‘Wrongful Conviction Day’ held its fourth annual event. With wide ranging opportunities, being able to contribute helped make the day an unqualified success. Whether  sharing support through social media, or attending wrongful conviction lectures or benefits held throughout the United States and Canada, there was provision provided for those wishing to take part.

Innocence Projects throughout North America were heavily involved on Wrongful Conviction Day. These Innocence Projects are heavily involved every day. One of these was the CIP, California Innocence Project. The CIP, founded in 1999 is a law school clinical program brought to fruition in part by Justin Brooks. As Director of the CIP Justin’s ethos was threefold.

1) to free innocent people from prison; 
2) to provide outstanding training to our law students so they will become great lawyers; and 

3) to change laws and procedures to decrease the number of wrongful convictions and improve the justice system.

After 18 years of existence the CIP has successfully met with these targets and continues to not only exonerate, educate and help improve the US justice system, it goes further. It inspires.

Mike Semanchik is the Managing Attorney & Media Coordinator for the CIP. With Mike’s help this article was possible. I wanted to find out what being part of an innocence project involved and the best way to do this was surely to find out from the people within? My passion for justice reform is focused predominantly on awareness and education for a public that is increasingly wishing to become more involved in the criminal justice system. So, I asked some of the staff and students of the CIP for their thoughts, feeling and motivations. I’m thankful that I did.

Many of the people that I have spoken to regarding the criminal justice system have voiced grave concerns. More importantly, most have expressed the desire to be able to do more. To be more hands on and in turn proactive. Aislinn Rodgers, a clinical intern at the CIP did just that. Her story is an inspirational one.

” I grew up in a low income family and I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t had help along the way. This instilled a sense of altruism in me. The result is all of my adult life I’ve worked in non-profits, mostly with children, but always with people who needed help. I knew going into law school my goal would be to still help those who needed it. Before applying to law schools I didn’t even know the California Innocence Project by name. I was aware of innocence projects in general from famous cases like the Brian Banks case, or the Steven Avery case–which the famous “Making a Murderer” docuseries traced–but I hadn’t researched into the Innocence Projects which helped XONR8 them. While researching and applying to law schools I had an idea that I wanted to continue to help people and I wanted to go into criminal law, but I didn’t know much else. While researching California Western School of Law I discovered the CA Innocence Project. After reading the mission statement, watching some youtube videos and going on a school tour I knew I had to be a part of the program. Here I am, 3 years from when I first found out about CIP and I’m part of it, working hard to help others.”

Knowing you want to do something and actually doing it are of course two entirely different animals. Of perhaps the most importance when hearing answers to my questions of Aislinn was not only her determination but her sense of self. Often we can get lost in giving the answers that we believe people wish to hear rather than our own. 

“Once I knew I wanted to be a part of CIP the first step was getting accepted into Cal Western. Which, I did. I began my time at Cal Western by attending info sessions Justin, and the whole CIP team, put together for students. I attended as many XONR8 and CIP presentations and events as I could. I wanted my face to be a familiar one when I did apply. The application process for CIP is different than any other internship or job I’ve done. The application process starts with requesting tasks from a CIP staff attorney. Once received these tasks take weeks of work to complete. I turned in the application and waited until I received an email: I was selected to interview! My interview was towards the end of the day at 3:30 p.m. I walked in and, before sitting, was asked how I was doing. I responded “I’m really excited to be here,” and I distinctly remember Justin, while he was snaking on something, looking at me and commenting I was the first person to say they were excited to be there. I knew that was a good sign, and then the questioning started. I was asked about where I grew up, Banning, CA; and if I knew the history of the town, it is a stagecoach town which is the natural pass between the southern California mountains; did I know how it got named Banning, yes the person who founded the town is the same Banning from the Long Beach ports, which Banning high school in Wilmington is named after. After a few more questions about why I wanted to be a part of CIP, and some personal questions the interview was over. I felt great about it and all I could do was be nervous and wait. 

During my CIP application investigation, and in the weeks leading up to my interview, my 8 year old dog was suffering and dying from cancer and heart failure. I was taking my dog to vet appointments every 2-3 days, while still attending school, and completing my CIP application. I knew my dog was sick and dying, but the vet did not suggest I put him down yet because he was still walking, and smiling and seemed to be enjoying life. I had to continue with life. After my CIP interview I went home to find my sweet boy had passed away in his sleep, he was still warm to the touch when I found him. My other little dog was curled up next to him when I walked through the door. It was rough for me to lose him, but he waited for me to get through the application and the interview because he was a good boy to the end. Losing my dog was very difficult for me to deal with while I was going through this process, however it doesn’t compare to losing a family member or your own life to the system when you are innocent. That’s why I worked to be a part of CIP, to help people who lost their families and their lives when they should be in the world enjoying it.”

‘I’m really excited to be here’. The sound of the hammer hitting the nail squarely on the head. Doubtless determination, acumen and dedication amongst other superlatives are required yet it is often the simplest of emotions that help reinforce the founding reasons for lasting the course. Passion plus application can make the seemingly impossible a reality.

So, what to expect when the door is opened and the studying begins?

“There are 13 interns. We each have a caseload of 10 clients. These cases range anywhere from the beginning of the process, to closing the case at an end of the process. I am expected to visit my clients; conduct investigations into their claims of innocence; find witnesses to re interview; view evidence and have it tested for the first time or retested if the science has improved. We write memos, briefs, declarations, letters to clients and attorneys. Like every non-profit, CIP has fundraising events and we are expected to plan and participate in them. These include the annual CIP gala and silent auction, as well as the annual dodge ball fundraising event. CIP is also a law firm, as such we interns are expected to commit to 15 hours a week of office hours present in the CIP offices.  CIP interns still have classes like normal students. I am currently enrolled in 14 units. A mandatory class for all CIP interns is “Wrongful Convictions” taught by Justin Brooks. In this class we learn about the history of wrongful convictions, famous cases such as the “Central Park Five” and the reasons and [junk] science behind wrongful convictions. On top of all that some students do extra curricular activities as well, I am a small-group tutor for Cal Western and teach one tutoring session a week.” 

Busy then? No doubt, and with so many varied duties to carry out it’s a wonder that these students manage to fulfil their obligations. Yet fulfil them they do. As alluded to earlier, being a member of the CIP and indeed other innocence projects lends itself to a way of life. Office hours need not apply here, and from my understanding, it is with this belief by students and staff alike that the CIP works. The California Innocence Project is a family. They are their own support system and because of this justice reform has in it, a strong ally.

This is not to say there are not hard times. Mike Semanchik himself alludes to the fact of not being able to switch off from his duties at the CIP.

” The negative side of the work is not being able to step away from it.  Often, I will spend nights thinking about the cases I need to work on when I should be enjoying the company of my family.  Being able to shut off work is very challenging for all of us.”

Yet, the positives shine through. Mike speaks of the ‘family’ as not being made up solely of staff and students but of past and present clients too. The battle being not only to exonerate but to reintegrate.

“CIP is a family.  The staff hangs out outside of work all the time.  Moreover, our freed clients become family.  Many of the clients lose touch with family and friends while in prison, so CIP staff are the only ones they know upon release.  I would consider the relationships with clients and staff to be positive.”

Audrey McGinn, staff attorney for The CIP echoes Mike’s sentiments when glowingly describing the relationships within.

“We live and breathe CIP.  The staff here is like family.  We are all best friends and each others’ support system.  We hang out together after work, on the weekends, and go on vacations together.  I love coming to the office every day and knowing my friends are there.  It’s so hard to do this work without a support system of people who are in the trenches with you.  The day to day work is hard, and some days you don’t feel like you have made any progress:  no one answers your calls, you can’t find the right case law for your brief, or you can’t find the physical evidence.  It’s so important to have people in your corner in the best and worst moments, and in all the in-between moments.  As for the negative side, it’s hard sometimes to have all the responsibility for someone’s life in your hands.  It’s heavy and it’s always with you.  The worst is when you are really connected to the case and learn there is nothing we can do because the evidence was destroyed, or the key witness is now deceased.  When the cases become personal, it’s an even heavier burden.  This is when having the support system is so crucial.”

I appreciate the fact that studying law is not for everyone, and just because of this people can feel excluded. However, if law is not for you, there are other ways in which you can be involved. I asked Mike and Audrey what steps can be taken to become proactive and begin making a difference. Both explained that starting off within your own communities is a great place to begin.  

” Get involved in your local community.  Participate in rallies.  Start following influential justice reformers on Twitter and begin having a dialogue.  Call and email your local representatives and ask them their position on criminal justice reform.  If their opinion is different from yours, question it and ask them to meet with you to further discuss their viewpoint.”

Audrey reinforced the need to work outwards from local communities towards that of a National level. 

” I suggest people get involved in local politics and learn what is happening at every level, especially the ones close to home.  Often change can start there.  It’s hard to jump right into national or international politics without the necessary knowledge of local laws and culture.  I recommend getting in contact with their local representatives to learn the landscape and create change from the bottom upwards. “

Still, for those who are interested in finding their way into an Innocence Project the question remains, where are they? I realise that the majority of readers are not in California. However, with over 90% of the United States catered for regarding innocence projects the probability of one being close to you is set fair. The most up to date list I could muster is below. 

https://www.aallnet.org/sections/sr/residents/List-of-Innocence-Projects.html

Whilst I can’t speak for any of these innocence projects personally, I’m sure that many of the fundamental building blocks that help the CIP flourish are kindred across the country. After all, they are the sum of their parts and as you can see from my small sampling here, the fight for justice reform is in good hands. 

The CIP is currently working on numerous wrongful conviction cases. They include that of Rodney Gupton, Dolores Macias, Horace Roberts, and Jason Walton. Audrey McGinn is personally working on the case of Anthony Chairez. You can read his story, amongst others at the CIP web site to which I have linked below.

https://californiainnocenceproject.org/read-their-stories/anthony-chairez/

In relation to the growing interest that the public have shown towards wrongful convictions Mike has seen a greater understanding and in turn acceptance to the realities of the US justice system. With that though comes the acknowledgement that anything wrongful conviction related is delivered via the slow lane.

“The main changes have been more acceptance by the general public that wrongful convictions occur.  I haven’t seen any negative impact from the criminal justice reform interest.  The reality of attempting to reverse wrongful convictions is a long and arduous one.  Most of the time, it takes us years just to get a piece of evidence tested, let alone free someone from prison.  It is really rare to actually walk someone out of prison.  Usually, by the time the public is seeing the person walk out of prison, the innocence organization has spent at least five years working on the case.  Most of the five years are pretty exhausting for the innocent person, the attorney assigned, and the families of both sides.  It is mentally and emotionally draining, especially towards the end as the judge’s decision approaches.”

Whilst the realities of attempting to exonerate the wrongfully convicted are clearly slow work due to the legal system, Audrey McGinn explained to me that it is not only those with an affinity towards law that are needed.  The CIP welcomes volunteers too. 

“We accept all kinds of volunteers in the project.  We have had great luck with everyone from high school students to local business owners.  We are looking for passionate independent people who would love to help us on the ground floor.  We get over 6,000 pieces of mail every year, which means we need help sifting through that to find the good cases.”

Before I depart, I would like to offer my sincerest gratitude towards Aislinn, Mike and Audrey for finding time in their clearly hectic lives to answer my questions. Inspiration is an integral part of engaging the public as to matters that are of great importance to all of them, realised or not. 

From one innocence project to another. The tenaciously passionate justice crusader that is Tricia Bushnell, Director of Midwest Innocence Project. Her use of the sot genius Charles Bukowski’s quote as her twitter mantra sums up how I feel about my work and speaks to me how the people I have spoken with may feel about theirs too.

The last words however, must belong to Aislinn Rodgers. I asked if she had any advice to offer anyone wishing to follow in her footsteps? So what are you waiting for?

 “Do it!”

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    James Didcock

    Journalist

    Writer at betherain.org Non profit organisation detailing Justice Reform and Environmental Issues. Get involved and make a difference.

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