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National Database Compiled To Prevent Wrongful Convictions

Evening Edition

Above: Brian Banks promising football career was cut short in 2002 when he was wrongly convicted of rape at only 17 years old. Last week, an LA County judge overturned the conviction, thanks in large part to work on his case by the California Innocence Project. Banks is not alone. A new database released last week documents hundreds of exonerations since 1989.

Aired 5/28/12 on KPBS Midday Edition.

GUESTS:

Sam Gross, Professor, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and University of Michigan Law School Professor

Justin Brooks, Professor, California Western School of Law, Project Director: California Innocence Project

Brian Banks, recently cleared of a rape charge, with help from the California Innocence Project

Transcript

Seventeen-year-old Brian Banks had a promising football career as a middle linebacker at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. But in 2002, his prospects vanished when he was convicted of rape. But it was a wrongful conviction. Banks was innocent. Ten years later, Banks is finally a free man.

Last week, an LA County judge overturned the conviction. In a video by Press Telegram, Banks visibly breaks down as the judge announces his decision.

"I know that I'm here today and I remain unbroken," Banks said last week. "And I set my heart out to prove my innocence by any means necessary, and we did that today."

Also last week, a National Registry of Exonerations was released, which shows Banks is among hundreds of wrongly convicted people who have been exonerated since 1989.

We've been hearing about cases of wrongful convictions for more than two decades now. Many the result of DNA testing of old evidence. But the news comes one case at a time, and until now, it's been difficult to get a overall sense of exonerations in the U.S. Now, in the largest database of its kind, a list of nearly 900 exonerations have been compiled and released by the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University.

Banks exoneration is the latest victory for the California Innocence Project, which is led by Justin Brooks of California Western School of Law. Brooks tells KPBS that helping free Brian was a huge accomplishment.

"He served five years in prison. He actually wrote to us while he was in prison," Brooks said.

But Brooks had to tell Banks that without any evidence to prove his innocence, they couldn't take on his case.

"So he served his time, and then he got out, and all of a sudden he got this facebook friend request from this woman saying she wants to let bygones be bygones and can we still be friends, after she took this guy's entire life away from him," explains Brooks.

The woman who accused Banks of rape decided to give a statement that it never happened and that she actually lost her virginity years later. The California Innocence Project had this all on video.

"But that doesn't mean we're out of the woods," said Banks. "We have the burden of proof of showing innocence and there was a chance they wouldn't have admitted that video."

So they negotiated with the District Attorney's Office in Los Angeles and brought their client in for an interview. As Brooks said, "The right thing happened last week."

Brooks said that even though the new study documents 2,000 wrongful convictions, "that's really only the tip of the iceberg because those guys who got exonerated are the lucky ones."

About half of the wrongful convictions documented in the new registry were murder cases. Brooks said murder and rape cases often do have biological evidence that can help prove innocence, but others, like drug cases, can be almost impossible to reverse for a lack of evidence.

Common factors contributing to false convictions include false accusation, mistaken eyewitness identification, official misconduct, and false or misleading forensic evidence.

Brooks said that educating the general public about wrongful convictions is a big step in making sure jurors make proper decisions.

Meanwhile, Brooks is happy about helping to overturn Banks wrongful conviction last week.

He said, "I'm hoping we're going to have a fairytale ending to this, and he ends up in the NFL."

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