‘Anyone can be wrongfully convicted’: Founder of California Innocence Project speaks at the Ath

Justin Brooks spoke to Claremont students and faculty about his work at the California Innocence Project. (Wendy Zhang • The Student Life)

Justin Brooks, director and co-founder of the California Innocence Project (CIP), spoke at the Claremont McKenna College Athenaeum on Tuesday, Feb. 28. He presented his new book “You Might Go to Prison, Even Though You’re Innocent” and its focus on the causes of wrongful convictions.

The CIP is a branch of the larger Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 1992 that provides pro-bono legal services to exonerate individuals maintaining innocence. Innocence Project is also a subgroup of the global Innocence Network, which consists of 71 organizations around the world.

In his presentation, Brooks discussed the chapters of his book, which outline the various reasons a person may be wrongfully convicted ranging from Chapter 1, “You Hired the Wrong Lawyer (Pleas with No Bargain)” to Chapter 10, “You Are Poor and/or a Person of Color.” He accompanied the discussions of each chapter with past cases in which now-exonerated clients were wrongfully convicted.

“I think it’s human nature to not believe in wrongful convictions,” Brooks said. “Because then you have to believe that one day you might be wrongfully convicted.”

Brooks explained that he founded the CIP after reading about the case of Marilyn Mulero, a woman sentenced to death row on a plea bargain. Mulero maintained her innocence and Brooks recruited his law students at California Western School of Law to help him work on her case.

“I said, ‘Who wants to help me out?’ and four brave souls raised their hands,” Brooks said. “That night they came over to my house, we sat down at the kitchen table and started going through the police reports and started putting the case together. That night, for me, the Innocence Project was born.”

The CIP’s clients have collectively spent more than 570 years wrongfully incarcerated, according to the California Innocence Project’s website. Along with providing pro-bono legal work, the CIP also works on law reform, having successfully passed multiple bills to prevent wrongful convictions in the future.

Despite the complicated legal work that the CIP does, Brooks offers his professional knowledge and experience to the public through his book. He aims to explain the issues surrounding wrongful convictions in an accessible way.

“I tried to write this book in a way that anybody could read it and understand this stuff,” Brooks said. “Not make it overly legalistic, not make it overly scientific.” 

Students like Olivia Carusi CM ’24 affirmed that the clarity of the book is helpful to readers looking to become more involved in the criminal justice system.

“I think it’s so easy for even people who consider themselves to be well-versed in some legal terms or state policies [to] get easily intimidated by police officers and interrogation techniques,” Carusi said. “It is important to just say these things in simple terms so that other people can understand them and also understand what’s wrong with the system.”

Carusi added that she was deeply impressed by Brooks’ work at the CIP, and was optimistic about the potential the institution has to challenge preconceived ideas about incarceration and criminal justice.

“Seeing something like the Innocence Project that works within the system to also help change the system, or at least introduce more justice into a faulty system, is really inspiring,” she said.

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