Marching 600 Miles Is One Step Toward Freeing 12 Innocent Inmates

California’s Innocence Project is marching to Sacramento so a dozen wrongfully imprisoned inmates can be freed to run around the block.

California innocence project marches for freedom

California Innocence Project’s Brian Banks and Michael Semanchik carry petition signatures to the Nicaraguan consulate asking for the release of Jason Puracal, an American wrongly imprisoned in Nicaragua on drug charges. Puracal was released in September 2012. (Photo: California Innocence Project)

Michael Semanchik is an attorney for the California Innocence Project.

There’s no doubt the criminal justice system has made mistakes. Since the start of Innocence Projects in the U.S., there have been more than 300 DNA exonerations alone. More than 1,000 more have been based on witness recantations, prosecutorial misconduct, exposure of false evidence, the discovery of new evidence, and advancements in forensic science.

These are the types of cases you hear about in the news. Unfortunately, there are quite a few stories of innocence you have not heard about, tragic stories of justice gone wrong.

On April 27, 2013, the California Innocence Project (CIP) will start a walk from San Diego to Sacramento to deliver clemency petitions to Governor Brown for 12 innocent inmates. Many of the inmates, even with strong evidence of innocence, have been unsuccessful challenging their convictions in court.

Some of the 12 have even been found innocent by a judge; yet remain incarcerated. These are the stories you have not heard about—and that is why we’re walking 600 miles.

JoAnn Parks is a case that deserves the attention of the Governor. Parks was convicted of arson in 1993, four years after her children died in a fire at the family home. Fire investigators concluded that, because they could not find evidence of an accident, the fire must have been set by human hand.

Exoneree Brian Banks, flanked by California Innocence Project’s Professor Justin Brooks, carries petition signatures to Attorney General Kamala Harris asking for the immediate release of Daniel Larsen. Larsen spent more than two years in prison after being declared innocent by a federal judge. (Photo: California Innocence Project)

The defense at trial was that Parks’s Zenith Television, a brand at the time known to have caused as many as 50 accidental fires, caused her fire.

John Lentini, a renowned fire expert, recently reviewed the case and determined the room that housed the television was likely the single source of the fire. Moreover, Lentini determined the “science” relied upon by the investigators at trial was “tainted by the fire investigators’ failure to understand the behavior of fire, and on unfounded beliefs about their ability to interpret post-fire artifacts.”

Banks said this about the march: “From the moment I became free, I’ve wanted nothing more than to help others in my same situation. I’m hoping we can all come together to help free the California Twelve.”

William Richards is another case that deserves attention. Richards was convicted of murder based on evidence of a bitemark found on the victim’s body. At trial, a forensic odontologist testified Richards could have left the bite mark.

After years of investigation, CIP showed the same odontologist additional images of the victim’s body that were available at the time of trial, yet never viewed by the expert. With the additional images, and advancements in forensic odontology, the expert came to two conclusions: (1) the mark on the victim was not a bitemark; and (2) even if it were a bitemark, Richards was excluded as the person to leave the mark.

The California Supreme Court recently ruled against Richards, finding that when an expert changes his opinion, the original opinion does not constitute false evidence.

CIP will not be walking alone. Brian Banks, a CIP exoneree who spent more than five years in prison for a rape he did not commit, will be joining the three-person crew as it makes its way through Los Angeles County.

Banks said this about the march: “From the moment I became free, I’ve wanted nothing more than to help others in my same situation. I’m hoping we can all come together on this 600 mile walk to help free the California Twelve.”

Should judges reevaluate forensic evidence when new science comes to light? Say why or why not in COMMENTS.

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