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California Innocence Project Co-Founder Discusses The Making Of ‘Brian Banks’ Film

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The exoneration story of Brian Banks is one of the notable achievements of the work of the San Diego-based California Innocence Project and now it's being told in a motion picture playing in theaters nationwide.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 The amazing exoneration story of Brian Banks is one of the hallmarks of the work of the California innocence project and now it's being told in a motion picture that opened nationwide last week, bank spent years in prison and on probation for a crime he did not commit and saw the prospect of a career in the NFL vanish before his eyes when the San Diego based California innocence project took his case. His attorney, Justin Brooks, thought it was the longest of long shots. Now Brooks and banks are the main characters in the movie called Brian Banks. And joining me via Skype is Justin Brooks, director and Co founder of the California innocence project. And Justin, welcome.

Speaker 2: 00:41 Thank you so much. Pleasure as always.

Speaker 1: 00:43 Now Brian Banks case his exoneration made headlines when it happened back in 2012 can you remind us about the background of his case?

Speaker 2: 00:51 Sure. So Brian was a 16 year old kid going to Long Beach, Paul Ali, and he was one of the best football players in the country. He was heading to USC on a full scholarship. Everyone said he was gonna play in the NFL and then a 15 year old classmate accused him of rape. Brian ended up spending six years in prison after he took a plea Barg and uh, because he was facing 44 years in prison. And when he got out, she came forward and admitted that the rape never happened.

Speaker 1: 01:23 Brian was out on parole when he first approached you about his case. In fact, that meeting is one of the early scenes in the film. We have a clip from the movie Brian Banks with actor Greg Kinnear playing you, Justin and actor Aldis Hodge who plays Brian Banks sitting at a bar talking about how the criminal justice system is broken.

Speaker 3: 01:44 The system is broken. It's when I'm trying to tell Ya, just doesn't care. I'm just supposed to accept that, that the system is broken. You know what I say to that? This system now for real man. I mean, why can't we at least try? What is the system is people, yeah, it's cops, lawyers, judges. If one of them had just just cared enough to even go down to that hallway. Kanisha said, I dragged her, listen to how the tiniest little noise echoes. I wouldn't have this thing on my leg. Mr. Brooks, Justin, Justin. I know the system doesn't care about me. I've known that my whole life. The question is do you,

Speaker 1: 02:33 that's a scene from the movie Brian Banks starring Greg Kinnear and oldest hodge and Greg Kinnear is portraying my guest, Justin Brooks, director of the California innocence project. Justin, you are actually in part of that scene as a bartender?

Speaker 2: 02:49 That is correct. I didn't know if you're aware of that, but yeah, it was pretty surreal. They said the director asked if I wanted to play a small part in the movie and I said so I ended up serving the drink next to me and Brian with Greg Kinnear and all this playing those roles while they had a conversation that Brian and I had eight years before, so it was pretty surreal. This whole experience of having yourself portrayed in a movie must've been strange. Yes, it was. We had a, Greg actually showed up at the San Diego and a California Western School of law set in all my classes. So I had him sitting in my classes in my office. I had a few people send me emails saying, why is Greg Kinnear following you around the law school and a buddy? He really took it seriously. He wants to get it right.

Speaker 2: 03:39 And uh, it was a surreal experience, but it turned out really well. The movie is excellent. Just in take us back to that real conversation that you first had with Brian Banks. Why were you reluctant to take Brian's case? So there were two reasons. The first thing is the California's, this project doesn't represent people who are out of custody. We have so many cases of people on death row, people serving life sentences that we just don't have the resources to represent people trying to clear their names, trying to deal with old convictions. Brian convinced me that, you know, he was literally serving a life set sentence as a convicted sex offender. That his whole life had been taken away from him. And you know, the other thing about his case was it was a plea bargain. And we almost never take on cases where people have pled because it's so difficult to undo a plea.

Speaker 2: 04:31 I've actually been representing a woman for 25 years who was sentenced to death on a plea bargain and I got her off death row, but I'm still litigating to get that plea withdrawn. So Brian's case was an uphill battle from the beginning. Now the story of a man who is falsely accused of rape doesn't fit well with the message of me to where women are saying it's time that we are believed about accusations of sexual abuse. Did that contradiction become a factor in making this movie? Well, you know, I'm, I'm not confident the movie would have been made. We've been working on it for eight years. You know, if we were starting to make it now. But I think this movie is an important part of that conversation. I think one of the problems we have in this country right now is we're so polarized with extremes.

Speaker 2: 05:21 So it's sort of, guns are great, guns are bad, there's no middle ground. And that's why there's not any movement towards improving things. So whereas rape is one of the most unreported crimes, and whereas the overwhelming majority of women who say they've been raped have absolutely been raped, we still have to happen in the conversation that every once in a while there is a false accusation. And so we have to be cautious of that. So I just think it's important that we have conversations in reality. And when I hear people say things like, all women lie, it's, but want to hear someone say, no women woman has ever lied. That's also just naive. So I think this is an important part of the conversation and I think we've gotta get away from extremes.

Speaker 1: 06:08 How was the real Bryan Banks doing now?

Speaker 2: 06:11 Um, he's doing great. He, he just had a baby. He'd worked for a couple of years at the front office of the NFL, which was great. He played for short period of time for the Atlanta Falcons and then got hired by the NFL. And he's doing a lot of speaking. He, you know, has a real inspirational story to tell of how he survived all of this and I think his message resonates for people in their daily lives.

Speaker 1: 06:32 What's the hope behind this picture? Do you expect it might help fix the legal system in some way?

Speaker 2: 06:39 So you've known me for a long time, Oregon. I have an agenda. It wasn't necessarily, you know, that they wanted to make an entertaining movie and I think it is very entertaining, but I didn't want it to be a football movie. I wanted to be a movie about the justice system and what this movie portrays at the most fundamental level is if innocent people are pleading, if innocent people are going into court and saying they're guilty to cut their losses, there's something wrong with the criminal justice system and we need to look at it

Speaker 1: 07:09 now. There's been a movement lately on just about all levels of government at the, in the direction of criminal justice reform efforts to reduce prison sentences. The felony murder law was recently modified here in California. If you had your way, what is the one thing you'd like change to reduce the number of wrongful convictions in California?

Speaker 2: 07:30 In terms of the plea bargain issue? We need to free up resources in the criminal justice system so that all the cases aren't pushed towards plea bargains when we're now at a point when 95% to 97% of cases are resolved by pleas. And as a result of that, evidence isn't looked at closely enough. Um, witnesses aren't cross-examined. You know, people see all these trials on television and in movies, but they're really not occurring anymore. It's only a very small percentage of cases. So I'd like to see more reforms as you're talking about decreasing the number of people in prison, decreasing the sentences so that we free up resources to do a better job on the cases from the beginning.

Speaker 1: 08:10 The movie Brian Banks is currently at a theater near you, and I've been speaking with the director of the California Innocence Project, Justin Brooks. Justin, thank you.

Speaker 2: 08:19 Thank you so much.

Speaker 4: 08:23 Uh.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.