California Innocence Project Frees Another Client
Speaker 1: 00:00 The California innocence project is celebrating another hard one victory and its efforts to get wrongly convicted. Prisoners released Joanne parks who was convicted of setting a fire that killed her three children in Los Angeles County is now out on parole after spending 29 years in prison. The innocence project says errors in understanding the science of arson fires led to Park's conviction. This has been an odd year for the work of innocence project attorneys across the country. The COVID pandemic has led to the early release of some prisoners whose cases had been worked on for years and erratic presidential pardons have released some wrongly accused and allowed some others to avoid accountability for their crimes. Joining me is Justin Brooks, director of the California innocence project and law professor at California Western school of law. And welcome back, Justin. Speaker 2: 00:53 Thank you so much. Speaker 1: 00:55 Raquel Cohen is here. She is the attorney with the California innocence project who worked primarily on the Joanne parks case. And Raquel welcome. Speaker 3: 01:03 Thank you for having me, Maureen. Now we're Speaker 1: 01:06 Killed. Let me start with you. As I say, you were the lead attorney working for Joann Park's release. How did it finally happen? Speaker 3: 01:12 Oh man, it's been a crazy whirlwind, but when we first started working in Joanne's case, she was serving a sentence for life without the possibility of parole. So basically sentenced to die in prison. Um, and, uh, in 2013, as you know, Justin Brooks Michael's man check and Alyssa miracle, March, uh, 12 clemency petitions up to governor Brown's office. And one of them was Joanne Parks's case. We hope that governor Brown Brown would grant clemency and commute under sentence, giving her the chance of parole. But when he didn't, um, governor Newsome stepped up and in March of last year, so March of 2019, he commuted her to 27 years to life, which made her immediately eligible for parole and took her off of, uh, the life without the possibility, uh, sentence. So from there, we geared up for her parole hearing, which is something she had been doing while she was in there. Anyway, she had been working on bettering herself, so she set herself up for success. And then in October, the end of October, we had our parole hearing and she showed the parole board. She was not a danger and she got her date. And then we walked her out last Tuesday. Speaker 1: 02:22 Wow. Justin, that this conviction was largely based on what investigators thought was an arson fire set by Joanne, but are their conclusions now considered junk science? Speaker 2: 02:35 Well, there is a science related to arson and there are scientists and very good experts. But the problem is there's also a lot of bad experts. There's a lot of a glorified fireman who loves CSI and Joann's is one of those tragic cases where when the fire was analyzed, a conclusion was obtained that it was intentionally set fires. We now know can jump inside a house. And what happens is a fire can start accidentally as it did in this case as a result of an electrical problem. And then the fire can pass up to the ceiling and then move around the house and start in other locations. So the examiner later on comes to the conclusion, Oh, it must've been intentionally set because there were multiple points of ignition, but we now know you can have multiple points of ignition in an accidental flyer. Speaker 1: 03:29 Tell the story of the fire and parks conviction is told in the book, burned by Edward Humes, which came out a couple of years ago. And I believe before this commutation, you were in the process of raising money to build a recreation of the parks apartment, to prove that the fire was not arson, are those the lengths, the innocent project has to go in it's efforts to get wrongly convicted people out of prison. Speaker 3: 03:55 When we first, uh, lost the hearing and from the superior court, I would have loved to set all of the, um, fire investigators who disbelieved in her innocence, set their mind to rest by recreating the fire and showing that, uh, what they believed were multiple points of origin were really just one single origin and post slash over fully involved fire. Um, unfortunately we weren't able to raise that money, but we did have, uh, something close to that. We were able to raise enough money to do computer modeling. So Dr. Gregory Gore Britt Corbett, um, is able to simulate a fire on the computer. And so what he did was after we lost that hearing, he did this computer modeling, which definitely demonstrated that, um, based on all of the evidence, including witness statements and the burn damage, so that there was one single area of origin in the living room. Um, and that, um, the two areas of origin is not supported by the evidence. Speaker 1: 04:51 You know, Justin, the March that was just referenced that you made it to seek clemency for several of your clients from governor Jerry Brown was unsuccessful. And that governor seem to be reluctant to issue pardons and grant parole. Is governor Newson turning out to be different in that area? Speaker 2: 05:10 Absolutely. After 30 years working in the criminal justice system, it's hard not to be a little cynical. So when Gavin Newsome made a lot of promises when he was running for office, I wasn't sure what kind of governor who would be, but as soon as he got an office, he immediately suspended the death penalty. And we know in the United States, nearly 200 people have walked off death row after finding their innocent. And he immediately started examining these cases COVID did create an opportunity for us. And as you mentioned in the opening around the country, governors have started giving clemency because they had to get people out of the prisons. They had an emergency, but they weren't just walking people out who were guilty of serious crimes. Um, there were a lot of low level offenders who are released, but only in cases like this, which is, you know, a murder case of children where we able to actually establish an innocence claim to get them out. Otherwise, Joanne parks would still be in prison. It's not like they've emptied out the prisons and are letting everybody go. Uh, violent offenders are still all locked up, but it created an opportunity to present those cases and get some attention to them. Speaker 1: 06:23 You know, as, as I also mentioned, the president's pardons have been controversial overall, what do you think has that note notoriety been good or bad for your work? Does it taint the idea of pardons? Speaker 2: 06:35 Yeah, it's really been abused over the past couple hundred years and governors also abuse it. And it being as a result of, you know, favors and lobbying and, and the people, most of deserving, don't typically get clemency. It's the people who are most politically connected that get it. And president Trump will have his whole list of people who will be released before he leaves office. And it's, it's just, it's disheartening sometimes because we have the most compelling cases and innocence organizations around the country have the most compelling cases that should be looked up by governors. And yet those are the ones that don't get attention because we're not politically connected and we don't have that kind of power. So I've been really heartened that, that governor Newsome has granted clemency and pardons to the powerless. Speaker 1: 07:24 Raquel has Joanne doing Speaker 3: 07:27 She's excellent. It's actually, um, really, really fun to watch her transition back into society. I mean, she was down 29 years and, um, we've done so much since she has been out. I've taken her grocery shopping. I've taken her yarn shopping cause she likes to crochet. Um, we've gone to the beach and, um, through all of it, she's just grateful. Um, she is adapting well. I mean, you know, sometimes you walk clients into a grocery store and they're nervous and they stand by your side. I think I lost her like three times cause she was looking for specific items that she really wanted. Um, so she was very ready for this. Um, she's making good friends at her transitional living facility and I'm just really proud of her. It's just really awesome to watch her, um, take the second chance and really run with it. Speaker 1: 08:14 I want to thank you both Justin Brooks and Raquel Cohen for coming on and talking with us and thank you for the work you do. And it was a pleasure to speak with you again. Thank you. Speaker 3: 08:24 Nice talking to you too.