San Diego's Innocence Project To Embark On 600-Mile Journey
April 25, 2013 1:18 p.m.
Michael Semanchik, Attorney, California Innocence Project
Related Story: San Diego's Innocence Project To Embark On 600-Mile Journey
CAVANAUGH: The innocence project at the California western school of law has used every legal means possible to reverse wrongful convictions. Now attorneys are taking to the streets. That is, 600 miles of streets in a March from San Diego to Sacramento. The March will focus on gaining clemency for 12 California prison inmates whose cases supporters say show compelling innocence. And they want to bring attention to the fact that people wrongfully convicted continue to languish in our prison system. Jan Stiglitz is director of the innocence project, welcome back.
STIGLITZ: Good to be here.
CAVANAUGH: And Michael Semanchik is an attorney with the project, he will be going on this trek. Welcome.
SEMANCHIK: Thanks for helping me.
CAVANAUGH: The California Innocence Project has had a number of successes. I wonder why the school decided to embark on what some might a stunt.
STIGLITZ: Well, it's not a stunt. We have had some heartbreaking losses caused by the fact that it's very difficult legally -- the standards for overturning a wrongful conviction are extremely high. We lost a case 4-3 in the California Supreme Court where even though we undermined the conviction and explained all the facts that led to the conviction and one of the key prosecution witnesses recanted and said he was wrong, we lost because the law requires us to actually prove our client was innocent. So there's nothing more we can do legally. Going to the governor and other cases like it, to provide a law for someone who is innocent is not just a stunt.
CAVANAUGH: Why is this March necessary?
SEMANCHIK: I've met a number of the 12. And I see how they're sitting there. They're sitting there hopeless. We've done as much as we can and we can't get them out. So I'd like to deliver these petitions personally. Hopefully get some attention from the governor and get him to help us get these 12 out. But in the process, also travel across the state and let everybody know about wrongful convictions and about the problems we have with the criminal justice system.
CAVANAUGH: Jan, is there a common thread that unites these cases of the California 12? Is there evident of actual innocence in each case?
STIGLITZ: I don't think there's any unifying theme other than we believe we've gathered enough evidence to demonstrate that the person is in fact innocent. But there are limited avenues for relief. Sometimes it's a question of time, sometimes it's the legal standard. And one of the things we do in the project, we focus to an extend on changing the law and reforming the law and getting rid of some of the unnecessary hurdles to overturning wrongful convictions. So I think each case represents a situation where the legal system has convicted the person, but the legal system does not have a viable practical way for us to undo the conviction.
CAVANAUGH: I think you referred to this case in your first answer. But there's a particularly troubling case that I know that you argued before the Supreme Court, William Richards. He's still in prison.
CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us why?
STIGLITZ: William Richards was convicted of killing his wife. There were three trials, two resulted in hung juries. The third trial was one where he was convicted. And he was convicted in part because a prosecution expert testified that the victim had a bite mark which could only have been made by the killer and someone who had a unique dentition. Only one in 100 people would have had the same dentition as the person who made the bite mark, and Bill had that. We eventually filed on the case, we presented DNA evidence from a stranger on the murder weapon, we had hair under the victim's fingernail belonging to a stranger, not Bill richards, and the expert who testified that Bill was one of a few people who could have made the bite mark recanted and said no, Bill could not have made this bite mark. And we fought this case all the way up to the California Supreme Court and we lost in part because the California Supreme Court held that the expert was just giving an opinion, therefore there was no false evidence. And the new evidence standard in can California is very difficult to meet. You can't just improve that he shouldn't have been convicted, you have to affirmatively prove that he was innocent of the crime.
CAVANAUGH: Well, that's a sobering case. And you've spent an awful lot of time on this.
CAVANAUGH: There have been some successes. Let me talk about the exoneration of football player Brian Banks. Can you remind us?
STIGLITZ: Brian was accused of rape when he was in high school of a classmate. He was facing close to life in prison if he had gotten convicted. His lawyer said to him, listen, we can fight this. But it's a he said, she said case. And you could spend the rest of your life in prison. And he took a plea deal which required that he serve prison time. But he still lost some of the best years of his life. After he was released from prison, he was contacted by the woman who had accused him of the rape and said, gee, I'm really sorry I did that. I know you were innocent.
CAVANAUGH: And he was eventually -- you took it back to court to have him found actually innocent.
STIGLITZ: We took it to court and we got a reversal of his conviction, yes.
CAVANAUGH: And where is he now?
STIGLITZ: He is now --
SEMANCHIK: He's in Atlanta, training with the Falcons.
CAVANAUGH: Going to be playing pro ball. That's amazing. You get about 1,000 requests from inmates each year. How do you decide?
SEMANCHIK: We have a screening process. They submit their first document on appeal, the appellant's opening brief. So we have a good idea of what they got convicted of and how. We do a brief review of the case, and if it looks like it's a case worth looking into, we assign it to a student. They will investigate the case, try to determine No. 1 is this person innocent, and No. 2, can we prove it? If we're able to answer both of those questions, then at that point, we would go and draft the legal document necessary to get them out of prison.
CAVANAUGH: Jan, I know in reading about these cases and hearing about them, some of the cases involve people who've actually pleaded guilty to a certain offense. How often does that sort of thing happen when someone actually has not committed the crime?
STIGLITZ: Well, plea bargains exist in well over 90% of all criminal cases. And the sentencing laws in California are particularly harsh. The Three Strikes Law, very high sentences for sex offenses. So it's not at all unusual for someone to plead guilty to avoid a life sentence for a crime that person didn't commit. And it's not unusual and it's not necessarily wrong for them person's lawyer to urge the person to plead guilty to a crime they didn't do. So it happens sadly too often.
CAVANAUGH: And what are some of the other major issues that may lead to convicting someone who didn't do the crime?
SEMANCHIK: Well, certainly eyewitness identifications are a problem. The leading cause of wrongful convictions by far. But a lot of our cases, and a lot of the 12 actually have other issues outside of eyewitness identifications like arson science, where fire science has changed drastically over the last 15 years. Something like the bite mark evidence in Bill Richards' case. So there's a lot of science that has evolved, and those are things we look for, is this an area where the science has come such a long way that we should look at it again and see if could be innocent?
CAVANAUGH: And what is the law trying to catch up to this now? I know that I have heard there's a lot of different kinds of evidence that used to be relied on extremely heavily, like fiber evidence and hair evidence. That now has some under some scrutiny. Are courts taking a second look at these types of scientific evidence now?
STIGLITZ: One would hope that the law is being a little more careful in terms of letting in evidence. If someone was accused of arson today, the new arson science would be available and there's less of a chance that person would be wrongfully convicted. But that doesn't help you once the conviction has happened because once again you're facing the problem. The demonstration that the old science was wrong may undermine the conviction and all the evidence of guilt. But it doesn't affirmatively prove innocence. And if the standard for reversing a conviction is to actually prove your client didn't do the crime, undermining the conviction doesn't do you any good.
CAVANAUGH: And obviously you think that standard is too high.
STIGLITZ: I think it's too high. And it's one of the things that we're trying to do is eventually get California to modify its standards for reversing wrongful convictions based on newly discovered evidence.
CAVANAUGH: Mike, you're going to be taking part in this March. How are you preparing for a 600-mile trek?
SEMANCHIK: Back in September, we came up with the -- Justin, our director, came up with the idea last year. And so back in September of 2012, I did my first 20-mile walk. I walked from Ocean Beach to Del Mar. I've now done that probably 15 time, and I've talked across Camp Pendleton on a 23-mile walk. So I've done quite a few long walks. And there was quite a few weeks where I was talking to and from working which is Ocean Beach to Downtown.
CAVANAUGH: As I understand it, this March is going to take about 55 days? It's going to start on Saturday. And you're going to be stopping along the route, right? What kind of rallies or events do you have planned along the route?
SEMANCHIK: As we go up the coast, we have different things planned out. We're setting up something with Mira Costa college for Tuesday where we're going to have our -- Adam Riojas is going to address the crowd. When we get closer to Santa Barbara, we're going to go to speak at high schools and a career day in santa Barbara. So it depends on the area and what our schedule allows us to do. Talking 20 miles does take about seven hours and it takes a lot of energy out of you.
CAVANAUGH: Once you do get to Sacramento, have you already arranged to see the governor?
SEMANCHIK: That's something that we're working on right now is trying to get the governor's ear to have a sit-down, present the 12 petitions and just have him give a fair look to each of the 12 cases.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I'm wondering, Jan, is clemency the only option left to these 12 men or people? I don't know if they're all men.
STIGLITZ: No, they're not all men. There are some potential additional avenues of research, investigation, legal filings. For example in the Bill Richards case, I put in a call to the prosecutor's office. I think now with advances in DNA technology, there may be more evidence we can test. So it's not necessarily the only vehicle. But these cases take so much time, and you can never give someone back a day of their life if they're in prison. So there are some like Bill Richards where we could get immediate relief, it would be far better.
CAVANAUGH: How important is cooperation or lack of it from the original prosecutor in the case?
STIGLITZ: In terms of overturning a conviction, the cases we have done the best on are cases where we've gotten a fair hearing from the prosecutors. If the prosecutor decides to fight, then the case can last forever.
CAVANAUGH: Now, with the advances in evidence that weave talking about, of course DNA has just revolutionized how courts accept evidence, how juries accept evidence. Tell me if I'm wrong, why do you think there's still so much resistance within the legal system and in -- by prosecutors specifically to seeing what apparently are mistakes corrected?
STIGLITZ: Because prosecutors while they recognize that there are mistakes in the system, by the time someone has been prosecuted and convicted, the individual district attorney who handled the case was not only convinced the person was guilty, the jury verdict has now wrapped it up in a bow and they are completely vested in the conviction. So just psychologically, it's very difficult to get that prosecutor to believe they prosecuted and convicted someone who was innocent.
CAVANAUGH: Is there -- is it innocence project ever involved since the bar is so high now in actually finding out who is the perpetrator of this crime?
SEMANCHIK: Definitely. In one specific case on the March, Guy Miles is a guy that got convicted of a robbery and got sentenced to 75 years to life. We went back and found that he wasn't one of the try perpetrators. And we identified all three of the perpetrators. Unfortunately, the trial judge when we got in front of him for an evidentiary hearing thought that the eyewitness identifications at the time of trial were good, even though they were cross racial identifications and like I said earlier, the leading cause of wrongful convictions, and despite the fact that the three true perpetrators have come forward and said they were in fact the ones who did the robbery.
CAVANAUGH: Now, with certain propositions that have been on the ballot recently with the change in the way that prison inmates are kept in the counties more than sent to state prisons, realignment going on in the state, there seems to be a change in California's hardcore attitude or at least a softening when it comes to criminals. Do you see that, Jan, and does it take you hopeful that perhaps it'll be easier in the future to overturn wrongful convictions?
STIGLITZ: I think the public attitude and awareness has changed. I'm not sure it's reflected yet in the individuals who are involved in the criminal justice system. A lot depends on the District Attorney's Office. We have had great cooperation in San Diego, great cooperation in L.A. who are willing to look, meet with us, speak with us, Riverside, same thing. Some other offices just assume are the bad guys.
CAVANAUGH: How will you deem this March a success?
SEMANCHIK: If we can even get one person pardoned by the governor, I think it would be a huge success. But just getting out and getting awareness, talking about wrongful convictions is going to be also a very successful thing for us. There's quite a few people out there who have never heard the innocence project that maybe don't know the amount of wrongful convictions out there that have been documented, almost 1,100 since 1987, and that's DNA and non-DNA. Just to get out and explain to people that our system makes mistakes and we need to give them another look I think is going to be one of the successes of the March.
CAVANAUGH: The innocence March kicks off in San Diego this Saturday at noon with a rally at the California Western School of Law.