Why Won't California Release Innocent Men from Prison?

Gov. Jerry Brown has the power to exonerate them, but he won't use it.


SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown and the legislature have been cutting down on prison overcrowding to comply with a federal court order, thus leading to a "realignment" policy that moves inmates from state-run prisons to county jails and a policy that may result in some early releases.

Whatever one thinks of the governor's handling of this matter, it's hard to understand why he hasn't pursued his prison-reduction efforts by harvesting some low-hanging fruit – i.e., releasing from prison those inmates who almost certainly are not guilty of the crimes for which they've been convicted. The governor, after all, has the power to grant clemency and pardons.

Why not act on the evidence surrounding the so-called California 12?

Those are the 12 California prison inmates whose cases have been investigated by the California Innocence Project, a legal clinic at the California Western School of Law in San Diego. The group has secured the exoneration of 11 California inmates. U-T San Diego in March reported on its client, Uriah Courtney, who served eight years of a life sentence for rape before DNA evidence pointed to the real perpetrator.

Each year, the school's legal team receives more than 2,000 claims from inmates. It brings to mind the line from the prison movie, "The Shawshank Redemption," in which one of the characters says, "Everybody's innocent in here. Didn't you know that?" But while many people claim to be innocent in prison, some of them actually are innocent. And while the numbers might not be large, the sense of injustice is overpowering.

"I'm pretty darn cynical," the project's director, Justin Brooks, told me after a Friday rally at the Capitol steps. Of the thousands of cases his team reviews, they usually end up with one or two. These are cases where he is 100 percent convinced of the inmate's innocence. But even when the evidence is strong, it's hard to get action on the cases.

Prosecutors aren't always cooperative when it comes to reviewing some of their possible past mistakes, although Brooks says that San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has been an admirable exception. She always sits down and looks at the evidence.

But the courts are reluctant to reopen a case unless there is some new piece of evidence or a new technology (i.e., DNA), he explains. If, for instance, the defense simply did a bad job or didn't call a witness who could have exonerated the defendant, then it's nearly impossible to get a new hearing.

For instance, one of the California 12 is Quintin Morris, who has served 17 years in prison for three counts of attempted first-degree murder, even though another man later admitted the crime. The court found that such a confession should have been presented at the trial and rejected efforts to free him.

As the Innocence Project explains on its website, "A federal judge noted that his hands were tied and he could not reverse Q.T.'s conviction because there were no 'legal avenues to do so.' The judge expressed serious concern over whether Q.T. committed the crime and suggested that Q.T. specifically apply for a pardon from the governor."

All of the California 12 cases are equally disturbing, and while Brooks says his group is pursuing legal avenues on all of them, their best hope remains petitioning the governor for pardons, as the federal judge has recommended in the Morris case.

So last year, Brooks and two colleagues marched 712 miles to the Capitol to get some publicity for their cause. And after another year of inaction from the governor, they came back to the Capitol and again tried to spark some publicity.

"We've had several conversations with the Innocence Project and their materials are being reviewed," said the governor's office, in response to my inquiry.

On the Capitol steps, I talked to Tim Atkins, who spent 23 years in prison for murder before being released after the Innocence Project found that the conviction was based on a faulty eyewitness report. He described his nightmare — one that finally ended with an apology and exoneration from the same judge who had sentenced him years ago.

"Any kind of injustice affects us all," Atkins said. Maybe if the cost-saving argument doesn't reach the governor, a simple ethical one might.


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  1. Whatever one thinks of the governor’s handling of this matter, it’s hard to understand why he hasn’t pursued his prison-reduction efforts by harvesting some low-hanging fruit ? i.e., releasing from prison those inmates who almost certainly are not guilty of the crimes for which they’ve been convicted. The governor, after all, has the power to grant clemency and pardons.

    Gov. Pete Wilson and the rest of his racist Republican party have essentially put all of California in prison. What we need is a grass roots action to replace the racist Rethuglican domination of the Governors office and the State Assembly. Maybe if California voters woke up, and elected some Democrats, concepts like Free Speech, Civil Rights, and Freedom from Tyranny would blossom. As it is, until we vote these racist Republican bastards out of office, we will have to live with our own “house arrest”.

    1. Is that a bad spoof, or some sort of dissorder?

      1. New here?

        1. what Patrick said I’m shocked that a mom able to get paid $5552 in four weeks on the internet. did you read this site link
          (Go to site and open “Home” for details)

    2. …”Maybe if California voters woke up, and elected some Democrats,”…

      Hey, they’re trying:
      “Leland Yee Receives Nearly 300,000 Votes In Primary Despite Corruption Charges”

    3. Um, are you stupid? Pete Wilson hasn’t been governor of California for 15 years. There have been three different governors since him – Gray Davis, Arnold Schwartzenegger and Jerry Brown. California IS run by Democrats. If you’re going to rant about Republicans, you should at least get the last 15 YEARS of California history right.

      1. He’s not stupid.

        Read the post again reaaaall slooooww.

    4. Time machine broken again?

  2. For the record, Bonnie Dumanis is evil and wicked (and aptly named).

    1. Dumanis as in “dumb anus”?

    2. Yeah, seeing her name spoken of in a positive way leapt out at me. First time for everything I guess.

  3. “Maybe if the cost-saving argument doesn’t reach the governor, a simple ethical one might.”

    I laugh. Moonbeam is neglecting an essential task that actually is his job and instead is wasting money on empty trains. He has no ethics. This is typical of the useless political class. They can get elected. They can pass looted money out to their buddies. They know how to put themselves in the spotlight, but they are completely incompetent at the actual job they were hired to do.

    Also, see the Hildebeast. Aside from fumbling around and getting her employees murdered and telling ridiculous transparent lies, she has exactly zero accomplishments. She can draw a crowd though.

    1. Also, see Obumbles: epically incompetent. His only accomplishment is passing out record amounts of loot to his cronies, probably more than anyone in history.

      1. He can’t even make a phone call and get an American Marine out of Mexican jail.

  4. *phhht*

    No one is innocent.

    1. Bullshit.

      The assorted prosecutors are truly innocent of ever pursuing unethical means for the purpose of furthering their careers.

      Especially the one that was railroaded for prosecuting the Duke across players.

      He was just being TOUGH on crime !

      1. Meh, of these so called California 12 weren’t doing something illegal, they probably never would’ve been arrested.

        1. This is supposed to be sarcasm isn’t it?

          1. New here?

  5. Prison guard union.

  6. The state system of justice is incapable of reason let alone mercy.

  7. Just heading out with the family to a bbq to celebrate our ancestors being able to escape the tyranny, injustice, and arbitrary cruelty of George III. Then I read this. Makes me proud to be a Murrcan.

  8. Wait, doesn’t a pardon mean you did it but you’re being excused from one or more penalties? So even a pardon is an inferior remedy?

    1. An exoneration?

    2. Jim Rockford was pardoned and he did OK.

  9. Democrat or Republican, by the time you reach high office you are a politician, and decisions are based more on the perceived political consequences than ethics or compassion. That may sound cynical, but it’s based on a lifetime of experience.

  10. Ethics? We don’t need no stinking ethics.

  11. It’s like he’s trying to out-Texas Texas, in all the wrong ways…

  12. Why Won’t California Release Innocent Men from Prison? Because there is so much money to be made from incarcerating anything that moves. Just as the California Prison Guard Union. California, like many other states, locks up a lot of people and says, “look Mr. and Mrs. voter, we keep you safe by putting a lot of bad guys in prison. However, this is going to cost you a lot more money. But that’s a small price to pay for security, isn’t it?”
    What these states don’t tell you is that a. a lot of innocent people are doing time, and b. the state’s employees get a lot of state and federal money to keep these people segregated from society, innocent or guilty.
    Here’s an example.
    Why do you think the local, city, county, state and federal governments do not want drugs legal? Because they do not profit from it, and as we all know, these government entities actually profit from the taxpayers’ monies to keep drugs illegal by employing para-military organizations as the DEA, the prison system, the court systems, etc.
    Incarceration is just one of many very lucrative and profitable scams run by the powers that be.

  13. So many people are invested in perpetuating this idea that the state is infallible. If the state admitted mistakes in convictions, people might start getting ideas that the political elite might not be the people that should be making such big decisions.

    I like to save stories like these for when people start to talk about how some sort of public policy is to address fairness or why we should give more control to state, local or federal governments. Fair has nothing to do with 99% of the laws on the books. The focus has always been on control. Like others said, the powers at be aren’t interested in the overall welfare, but rather enriching themselves or their cronies and getting re-elected.

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