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How a Chicago murder conviction inspired the California Innocence Project

(L to R) Jan Stieglitz, co-director; Alex Simpson, litigation coordinator; and Justin Brooks, director of California Western's California Innocence Project, hearing the results of an investigation in class.
Katie Schoolov
Left to right: Jan Stieglitz, co-director; Alex Simpson, litigation coordinator; and Justin Brooks, director of California Western's California Innocence Project, hearing the results of an investigation in class. Undated photo.

The case that inspired the founding of the California Innocence Project is finally over. The 1992 murder conviction of Marilyn Mulero was dismissed by a Chicago judge this month and she was exonerated. Mulero spent nearly 30 years in prison — some of it on death row — all the while proclaiming her innocence.

Attorney and law professor Justin Brooks learned about Mulero’s conviction in 1995 and has been working on it ever since. It was her case that convinced Brooks to make helping the wrongfully convicted his life’s work.

Brooks is co-founder of the California Innocence Project which is based in San Diego at California Western School of Law. He joined on Midday Edition Thursday to talk about Mulero's exoneration and innocence work. The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.


Marilyn Mulero’s story is one you’ve told countless times over the years, but can you encapsulate it here and tell us why it became your obsession?

Brooks: Back in 1995, I read about out this woman on death row and the article said that she was sentenced to death on a plea bargain. And that just shocked me that someone could get the death penalty on a plea bargain. So I set up a meeting to meet with her and she told me not only was she sentenced to death on a plea bargain, but that she was factually innocent. And it was bad enough me thinking that she was guilty and sentenced to death without a trial, but the idea that she'd given up her right to a trial and gone right to a death penalty sentencing and she was proclaiming her innocence was crazy. So I recruited some law students and we started working on her case.

And it just ended this month, all this time?

Brooks: So I started the case when I was 29 years old. I just finished the case and I'm 57. I started the case the year my son Zack was born. And he just started his job at the San Diego Public Defender's office as a lawyer.

When you were able to get Marilyn off death row and resentenced to life in prison in 1998, you decided to make Innocence work your life’s work. You must have known that would lead to long and frustrating cases because our Justice system is pretty much lined up against overturning convictions isn’t it?


Brooks: Yeah. I did note (it) was very different than my experience as a criminal trial lawyer in Washington D.C. which is where I started my career, where most of my cases were resolved fairly quickly. I'd pick them up at the trial level and I'd do the trials and do my best and then they'd be out of my hands. They move on to the appellate courts or if I was lucky in one, they'd be freed. This work though, I had no idea, really, that a case could take 27 years to see it to the end. But working on her case, I realize the value of working on these cases with students. This is a profession that requires skills that you just can't learn in a classroom. And so that really motivated me for the idea of setting up a clinic where we would work on real cases, but the students would be learning at the same time. And so the next year, I moved to California and I started the California Innocence Project.

The homicide detective who helped send Marilyn to prison is accused of framing dozens of people … and more than 30 of his cases have been overturned. Was that the linchpin that led to Marilyn Mulero’s exoneration?

Brooks: Absolutely. For 27 years I've been talking about former Chicago Police Department Detective Reynaldo Guevera and his tactics and what he did to my client. She was kept up all night. She was psychologically tortured. She was repeatedly told she'd be executed. She was brought to a park and shown to gang members and they were told that she was the one who killed their friend. This guy has been doing this kind of stuff for decades in Chicago and finally it's come out. And now there's just dozens of cases that have been revealed that he basically just fabricated the cases. He was just setting people up and convicting of crimes they didn't commit.

In the cases of the 36 people so far freed from prison through the work of the California innocence Project, did most of those cases involve police misconduct or were other factors involved?

Brooks: I think most of the cases of wrongful conviction aren't due to intentional bad acts. And believe it or not — even after being criminal defense attorney for 32 years, I still believe in the basic goodness of people. I still believe most people get up every day and try to do the best they can, whether they're police or lawyers or whoever. But life is a bell curve, right? So there's the small part of the curve where you have the people who are incredible at their work. You've got most of the bell where most of us fall into of good to okay. And then you have the terrible and the horrible. And unfortunately, we do have lawyers out there like that, police officers like that, plumbers out there like that. In every profession, you have people that are either, like, completely incompetent or just literally intentionally doing wrongdoing. But in the majority of our cases, it's been more problems with the way we do identification procedures, problems with lawyering, but not necessarily intentional bad acts, problems with policing, but not necessarily intentionally bad acts. It's just the system is ultimately imperfect because it's based on human beings making decisions and we make mistakes.

Your work with the California Innocence Project not only involves working to overturn wrongful convictions but you’ve been very much involved in criminal justice reform. But there seems to be a backlash from the public and prosecutors to some of those efforts like felony conviction reform, the move to end cash bail, the move to stop charging minors as adults and the progressive district attorney in San Francisco was recalled for some of those reforms. What do you think is going on?

Brooks: Well, I think in the past several years, we saw some really good things happening, like the reform of drug laws, like changes that were actually decreasing the prison population in California. We actually dropped below Texas, and now Texas is number one. And these were great things. But the problem with reforming the criminal justice system is so many people benefit by increasing the number of people in prison, by increasing the number of police, by increasing sentences. We've created this entire industry around it. And particularly during the political season, you start hearing all the politicians talking about how afraid we all should be and how when they get elected, they're going to keep us safe. And so we already see that all drumming up for the upcoming November elections, a lot of very false statistics about crime. And I think that's just the cycle that we're in now. And we have to be smarter about it. We have to be smarter about our tax dollars. We have to recognize the fact that we've built the biggest prison system in the world in the United States. That we incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than any country in the world. And that we have a horrible recidivism rate as well, so it's not a very successful correctional system, and start making good decisions for our society, not decisions based in fear that just financially benefits certain people. And that's really what's happened in our system, and we were moving in the right direction. But during this political season, I can hear it all going again. More police, more sentences, more prisons. And that's not the way we should be going.

Is Marilyn Mulero receiving any compensation for the nearly 30 years she spent in prison?

Brooks: She has not yet. There is another battle that I'm going to be engaging in. And 38 states now have some form of compensation, my office worked to get compensation law passed in California. We now have a pretty good law where people can get $150 a day for every day they're wrongfully incarcerated. In a lot of states, they get things like maybe free tuition at a community college or things like that. But Marilyn, we still have an uphill battle that even though her case was dismissed, and that means the district attorney has acknowledged that she shouldn't have been prosecuted and they have no interest in pursuing her case, we still have a process to go through because, again, the plea bargain rears its ugly head. And so there's a question of whether she's eligible based on her plea bargain. But I am going to be fighting that as well.

How are you adjusting to this case being almost over?

Brooks: When I got the call that she was getting out, I was, for the first time in my life, completely speechless. It had been such a part of me for so long that I really had trouble thinking of myself, of, "Who am I if I'm not representing Marilyn Molero?" I've talked about her case endlessly. It starts every presentation I do, every class I teach. It's been a part of my life my entire professional career. So it's a massive relief, massive joy. But it's really hard to describe exactly the feeling.

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