‘Why I Founded the California Innocence Project’ — OBcean Justin Brooks

by on May 23, 2023 · 1 comment

in California, Civil Rights, Ocean Beach

Innocence Project director Justin Brooks poses at home in Ocean Beach. His new book is “You Might Go to Prison, Even Though You’re Innocent.” (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

By Justin Brooks / SD U-T OpEd / May 19, 2023

In 1995, I read a newspaper article about a young woman in her early 20s named Marilyn Mulero. Marilyn was awaiting execution in Illinois after being convicted of a double homicide.

The article said she was sentenced to death on a plea bargain, but I didn’t think that could be accurate. How could anyone be sentenced to death on a plea bargain? A plea bargain is supposed to be a bargain — meaning you give up your right to a trial in exchange for a lesser sentence. Death is the most severe punishment the government can dole out.

At the time I read about Marilyn, I was a law professor teaching and living in Michigan.

I felt a deep need to find out more about her case, so I set up a meeting with her and drove hundreds of miles to the prison where she was housed in rural Illinois. There, I found a confused and sad young woman who told me a remarkable thing.

“I’m innocent,” she said with teary eyes. “My lawyer told me pleading guilty was my best option.”

I’d practiced as a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C., before becoming a law professor. That experience made me fairly cynical about claims of innocence. But I was shocked Marilyn had been sentenced to death without a trial, or any apparent negotiation. I needed to know more.

I recruited some law students to work on the case with me, and soon our investigation revealed strong evidence of her innocence, including falsified witness testimony and a corrupt detective who has now been linked to dozens of wrongful convictions. Marilyn’s death sentence was reversed, but the courts refused to withdraw her guilty plea. I litigated that issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it denied review of the issue. It would be 27 years of litigation until Marilyn was fully exonerated, but during that time, based on my experience working on the case, I was inspired to co-found the California Innocence Project in 1999.

For the balance of this article, please go here.

Justin Brooks is a law professor at California Western School of Law and director of the California Innocence Project, and lives in Ocean Beach.

For more information on wrongful convictions, find the California Innocence Project Podcast wherever you get your favorite podcasts.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Joni Halpern May 23, 2023 at 4:39 pm

There must be a special gift among these people about whom you write, for they seem to find ways to keep going in spite of being the victims of our most cynical judgments. Thank you for your commitment, your dedication, and for the endurance of the people you have helped.


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