For most students, the pinnacle achievement in the classroom is getting an A.
For the law students at Santa Clara University's Northern California Innocence Project, the goal is beyond academic: It's setting the wrongly convicted free.
"It's pretty amazing," said Earl Horner, 31, a student in the class. "I get to set innocent people free from prison. Let me tell you, that's pretty powerful. A lot of law school is very opaque, learning about wills and trusts. Setting people free, well that is something else."
Cases take months and years to resolve in the courts, and the students who start cases - with the help of professional law firms and their professors - often don't get to finish them.
But the current class at Santa Clara University's Innocence Project was lucky enough to witness the release of two Oakland men over the last three months.
One was Johnny Williams, who was exonerated in March after spending a full 14-year prison term for raping a 9-year-old girl, thought later DNA evidence on a T-shirt cleared him of the crime.
The other was Ronald Ross, 51, who spent nearly seven years in prison for an attempted murder in 2006 that he wasn't involved in. In February, prosecutors agreed to drop the case against Ross because they agreed that he was convicted based on sloppy police work and a lying witness, among other legal mishaps.
Though the class usually acts like real criminal defense lawyers, keeping attorney-client privileges and a professional distance with the people they work with, on a recent weekday, Ross visited the students, walking in to cheers and claps.
"Don't Let the Devil Steal Your Joy"
Ross sat down for his first in-depth interview with NBC Bay Area about his gratitude toward the students, and the San Francisco law firm, Keker & Van Nest, which donated more than 2,000 hours of pro bono hours to help release him.
"I learned not to hold a grudge or stay angry all the time," Ross said repeatedly, emphasizing how he bears no anger now for the years lost behind bars at San Quentin Prison. "You know when you get up in the morning, I always said, 'Don’t let the devil steal your joy.' "
Ross said he always knew he didn't take part in shooting of Renardo Williams in the chest on April 15, 2006 in West Oakland. At the time, Williams even told police he thought the gunman was the father of a teenager he had a fight with, and not Ross. But the investigating officer put Ross's photo in a lineup, and Williams erroneously picked him out. In addition, Williams, who fingered Ross at trial, recanted his false testimony within the last year. And yet another witness lied on the stand. Prosecutors finally agreed to drop the charges, and Ross was back home with his mother eating shrimp and oysters in February.
Despite his lost years, Ross now said all he feels is a "whole lot of relief" and his release was a "blessing from the sky."
More Than 1,000 Requests a Year
The Northern California Innocence Project receives up to 1,000 requests a year for help, and they can't give all those prisoners their "joy" back. But legal director Linda Starr said some cases just stand out: Ross's was one of them. Her goal for the class is to teach the students the "skills to be great lawyers who go out and do wonderful work."
Starr said the Innocence Project saw the flaws in Ross's case early on, and her class began working with lawyers to remedy his situation. Students in the class helped by conducting interviews, visiting prisons and poring over case documents. Students learn about jailhouses and snitches who lie, and they often go out and do a lot of the grunt work to help law firms convince prosecutors and judges to overturn verdicts.
Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney David Angel, who has been honored by the class, acknowledges that mistakes do happen in the legal system, and when they do, wrongs should go corrected.
"Most of the time when something is screwed up," he said, "it's not a vendetta though, but a mistake."
Angel and DA investigator David Hendrickson worked with the Innocence Project to exonerate the only woman on the list of Santa Clara University exonerees: After being in prison for four years, Mashelle Bullington was cleared of a 1995 wrongful conviction of using a gun during a Campbell car burglary. Turns out, a witness got it wrong, or lied, the gun charge was vacated and the other charge was reduced to a misdemeanor.
In addition to exonerating Ross and Williams, the class has also worked on several other successful high-profile releases including:
High Profile Exonerees
- Obie Anthony III, who was wrongfully imprisoned in Los Angeles for 17 years on murder and attempted robbery charges. The Innocence Project, Loyola Law School's Project for the Innocent and the Federal Public Defender all helped to show that a witness had lied on the stand during the 1995 trial.
- Francisco "Franky" Carrillo, Jr. who was released from prison after two decades after a Los Angeles Superior Court reversed his murder conviction - all six eyewitnesses later admitted they didn't see Carrillo shoot anyone in 1991.
- Maurice Caldwell, who spent 20 years behind bars for a second-degree murder he didn't commit - based on false testimony from his neighbor and no physical evidence - in the housing projects of San Francisco.
While 17 exonerations in about a decade is an impressive track record, students in the class most often don't see people walking out of prison.
"There’s a lot of people in prison who are innocent and there’s nothing you can do," said student Fred Washington, 28, who is studying to be a district attorney. "Everyone doesn’t get out. You’re not going to change the system overnight. But if you keep chipping away it will happen at some point."
International Network of Innocence Projects
The Innocence Project in Santa Clara is part of an international "Innocence network," with upwards of 50 or more groups doing similar work. Some of the more well-known projects are in Florida, Texas, Ohio and Illinois. Starr said that there are no hard statistics but the Northern California project is considered among the more "successful."
The first Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, more than 300 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 18 who served time on Death Row.