Good, Smart Cops Can Hold the Keys to Freeing Innocent Inmates

A 30-year police investigator insists that he and his colleagues are ethically bound to pursue a common cause with the Innocence Project.

Wrongful Convictions and the Police Who Can Set Them Right

The exoneration of Brian Banks is one good example of law enforcement, the justice system and the Innocence Project working together on common ground. (Photo: California Innocence Project)

Luis A. Bolaños formed the Bolaños Investigations Team in May of 2007 following a long and distinguished career in law enforcement.
Lawyers and supporters for the California Innocence Project are walking 660 miles from San Diego to Sacramento, California, to personally deliver clemency petitions to Governor Jerry Brown for the release of the California 12, a dozen inmates who have strong cases of factual innocence. Follow their progress on TakePart.

Is there common ground between law enforcement and the Innocence Project?

You bet there is! I’m standing on it, and the Innocence Project is very well aware of it.

At times, however, I’m not so sure law enforcement is aware of the common ground, or is willing to publicly acknowledge it.

I’ve come to this conclusion with more than 30 years of investigative experience, 17 years with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, four years with the Riverside County District Attorney’s office, and eight years as a private investigator, including three of my private investigator years volunteering and working with the California Innocence Project.

For the majority of my law-enforcement years, I was farmed out to the FBI, DEA, Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, and numerous other federal, state and local agencies.

A common belief I’ve heard many times in each of these organizations, from “seasoned” law-enforcement officers and investigators, is a bizarre and tweaked version of their job description: “It is not my job to help clear or exonerate somebody” or “It’s the defense attorney who needs to come up with evidence proving that their client is innocent.”

Incredibly, this whole twisted belief that innocence is not an investigator’s concern seems to magnify itself after an individual has been convicted…even in the face of new evidence that clearly exonerates a person.

I was fortunate in my early years of law enforcement: I had great field-training officers and law-enforcement role models who made sure I understood our true role in law enforcement.

Whenever I heard this twisted version of our job description, I was always more than willing to share what I was taught and truly believe on this topic: “Your job in an investigation is as follows: You are a fact finder and a finder of evidence. You let the facts and the evidence speak for itself and direct you to proving someone’s guilt or proving their innocence. Anything else is unacceptable. It is just as crucial to clear an individual who has been falsely accused as it is to prosecute the guilty.” 

Unfortunately, now that I’m working in the private sector, I see that this work ethic is not always accepted or practiced in our justice system.

Incredibly, for some unexplained reason, this whole twisted belief that innocence is not an investigator’s concern seems to magnify itself after an individual has been convicted…even in the face of new evidence that clearly exonerates a person.

I’m now learned what the California Innocence Project and a massive list of defense attorneys have known for years. (Please know that I say this with the clear understanding that if you asked everyone who is in prison to raise a hand if they’re innocent, the only inmates who would not raise a hand would be the two-arm amputees.)

On numerous occasions in my career, I received a phone call from credible defense attorneys and defense investigators who were calling to tell me that their investigation revealed specific evidence or new witnesses that clearly exonerated their client—and sometimes pointed to the true perpetrator. Whether it was a case I was investigating or a case another officer was investigating, I felt morally, ethically and legally obligated to follow up on this information.

Honestly, the thought of being embarrassed through cross-examination and having to explain to the judge and jury why I refused to follow up on potential exculpatory leads and evidence was always there. But that fear of embarrassment paled in comparison to the thought of convicting and imprisoning the wrong individual.

Here’s the kicker: Amazingly enough, when we would follow up on these leads, many times the credible defense attorneys and investigators would be right. We had the wrong person

One of the best examples I have ever seen of law enforcement, the justice system and the Innocence Project working together on common ground is in the exoneration of Brian Banks.

In a perfect world, this is the way it should always work. Information from credible defense attorneys and investigators is provided to the District Attorney’s office. The two sides meet and thoroughly examine the value and the meaning of the new evidence. If and when both sides agree that an innocent person has been prosecuted and incarcerated, the process is expedited in fully exonerating the innocent individual. Anything else is unacceptable. 

I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working alongside the California Innocence Project (CIP) and vetting them from within. This is a very credible organization with very credible attorneys. CIP attorneys Justin Brooks, Alissa Bjerkhoel and Michael Semanchik are some of the most talented and experienced attorneys I have ever come across in my career. Any legal firm would be lucky to have them.

Here’s what amazes me about the attorneys I’ve met working for CIP: They could command top salaries at their pick of law firms, but because of what they believe, combined with what they have personally witnessed and experienced in their work at CIP, they stay and fight the good fight.

Their motivation is simple…it’s simply the right thing to do.

I respectfully ask all my law-enforcement colleagues and friends to look for the common ground and stand on it.

If needed, keep your motivation as simple as possible…. It’s simply the right thing to do.

How do you think law enforcement and the Innocence Project can work together better? Propose some policy in COMMENTS.

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