Governor Jerry Brown has established a track record of granting pardons at Christmastime. A San Diego law center specializing in exonerating wrongly-convicted inmates is hoping the governor will expand on that record this year, and grant clemency to 12 people it says have no business being stuck behind bars.
“There’s nothing more difficult than being in prison during the holiday times,” said California Innocence Project Director Justin Brooks at a Capitol rally of about 50 people on Friday afternoon. Brooks led a march from San Diego to Sacramento this summer to deliver clemency petitions to Brown’s office. “Here, five days before Christmas, standing in front of a Christmas tree is a reminder of how long it’s been since we were here last.”
The Innocence Project says it’s gathered proof like DNA tests, confessions from other suspects and confirmed alibis that make it clear the people it calls the “California 12” did not commit the crimes they’ve been convicted of. But technical and procedural barriers are keeping them in prison. “It’s things that, it doesn’t go to whether they’re innocent or not,” said Brooks. “It goes to whether you’re following evidentiary rules, or whether a judge applied evidentiary rules.”
“Those Years Are Gone For Good”
Brooks says the Innocence Project works hard to focus on cases where substantial doubts have been raised. “I always say there are two naive positions,” he explained. “One is that everyone in prison is innocent. The other is that everyone in prison is guilty.”
Several speakers at the rally offered powerful stories of being falsely-accused and shipped to prison, only to be released years later after evidence proved their innocence.” Those stories were made all the more poignant by the carols and holiday songs drifting over from the Capitol’s nearby Christmas tree.
The victim identified his picture in a police lineup. But the Innocence Project helped track down DNA evidence proving another man had committed the rape, and Courtney was freed in May.
“The toughest thing is being away from family this time of year,” Courtney told the crowd as “Oh Christmas tree” played in the background. “You try to forget about it, but it’s impossible.”
Governor Brown has announced previous clemency grants on the days leading up to Christmas. But the governor’s office wouldn’t comment on any of the 12 Innocence Project cases, saying the administration never discusses individual clemency applications.