13 People Who Have Been Freed By The California Innocence Project

The California Innocence Project (CIP) began in 1999 with the intent of assisting the wrongfully incarcerated in gaining their freedom while also working to reshape the legal system. Justin Brooks, co-founder and director of CIP, harnesses the assistance of students from the California Western School of Law to secure his clients' release while also teaching those budding lawyers what it takes to relentlessly advocate for their clients.

According to the CIP website, the organization assists around 1,500 clients every year. There are many people sitting in cells due to false confessions, poor eyewitness testimony, or even a nearly impossible set of circumstances coming together to seal their fate, such as sharing a name and even a strong resemblance to the actual culprit. 

The CIP has to be sure their client is 100% innocent before sending their student interns to interview witnesses, visit crime scenes, and gather as much information as possible. The CIP then files a motion in court to reopen the case and present their research, resulting in dozens of releases over their history. 

CIP is a nonprofit and accepts donations

  • Brian Banks
    Photo: California Innocence Project / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 1.0

    Brian Banks

    Brian Banks was a 17-year-old high schooler with hopes of playing football at college and NFL levels when an accusation of sexual misconduct ended his dreams in 2002. According to Banks, a consensual experience with his accuser turned into false charges, prompting him to take a plea deal for five years in prison to forgo any chance of serving a longer sentence with a trial. He received six years in prison and a lifetime designation as an offender.

    In 2012, his accuser Wanetta Gibson admitted her allegation was made up, recanting her story. The CIP took this information to the courts to secure Banks's exoneration after he served five years of his sentence. On May 24, 2012, courts reversed the conviction against Banks and set him free.

    CIP Director Justin Brooks assisted Banks in making his dreams of playing in the NFL come true, securing tryouts with teams. Banks eventually played in preseason games for the Atlanta Falcons in 2013 before landing a position within the league's department of operations.

    A movie about Banks premiered in 2018, starring Aldis Hodge as Banks and Greg Kinnear as Brooks.

  • Matthew And Grace Huang
    Video: YouTube

    Matthew And Grace Huang

    In 2012, the Huangs moved from Los Angeles to Qatar with their three adopted children. In 2013, their daughter Gloria passed unexpectedly, falling to the ground before her father rushed her to the hospital. The police in Qatar suspected the Huangs were responsible for their daughter's demise due to the child's early life of malnutrition that left her with an eating disorder. During the final four days of her life, she refused to eat. She also suffered from giardiasis, caused by a parasite difficult to remove. Qatar officials apprehended the Huangs and placed their other two children in an orphanage.

    Multiple unfounded allegations were proposed by the prosecution during the Huangs' trial, including accusations of human trafficking and organ harvesting. A tribunal found them guilty and sentenced them to three years, but the Huangs kept fighting the charges with the intervention of CIP and other experts to counteract the Qatari forged documents. Allegedly, there were inconsistencies in the autopsy report and police statements conducted by Qatari investigators.

    In late 2014, the Qatari appeals court overturned the convictions based on the false information presented by the prosecution in the trial.

  • Roeling Adams And Stephan Billiard

    Roeling Adams and Stephan Billiard were wrongly convicted in 1986 and 1993, respectively, due to witness misidentification. Adams engaged in a fistfight with three other men after being accused of cheating at dice. After he left the scene, at least three parties returned and began firing into a crowd, ending lives. According to witness Lori Mitchell, Adams was one of several men who returned, brandishing their paraphernalia. Despite Adams having an alibi, Mitchell's testimony and Adams's alleged crew affiliations led to his conviction and a sentence of 27 years to life.

    Years later, police apprehended Billiard who was also convicted based on Mitchell's testimony. Mitchell worked as a police informant and used her position to implicate Billiard, Dameian Hartfield, and Calvin Hodges for the slaying of Derrick Jennings as retaliation for a financial disagreement concerning an apartment the men subleased from her. Billiard's defense attorney failed to call any witnesses to appear at the trial and declined to put the alibi witness - in the courtroom and ready - on the stand. Billiard received a sentence of 25 years to life.

    At some point post-trial, Mitchell's mother informed Billiard's attorney that her daughter did not witness Jennings's demise because she was at home with her all night. The CIP became involved, piecing together the fact that Mitchell's erroneous testimony caused both Adams and Billiard to be convicted. In the case of Adams, a man named Edward Kennedy confessed to firing into the crowd that night in 1985, laying the groundwork for Adams's release in October 2014.

    Billiard was released on parole in August 2015, but his conviction still stands in his record. The CIP is attempting to get Billiard's conviction overturned due to Mitchell's false testimony.

  • Kimberly Long
    Photo: Crime Watch Daily / Warner Bros. Television

    Kimberly Long

    On October 6, 2003, Kimberly Long returned to the home she shared with boyfriend Oswaldo "Ozzy" Conde in the early morning hours and found him deceased in their living room. She called 911, and arriving paramedics concluded Conde perished prior to their arrival. In an interview with police, Long admitted she and Conde had an argument that led her to leave the home around 11 pm the night before with her friend Jeff Dills. Two days later, Dills told police he dropped Long off around 1:20 am, leaving a 49-minute gap between the time she arrived home and when she called police.

    Though Long insisted Dills's time was incorrect, police charged her in the second degree. Police saw Dills as a suspect as well, potentially prompting his false testimony. Conde and Long's friends believed Conde's ex-girlfriend was the true culprit, as Conde recently secured a restraining order against her amidst threats to end him and deny him visitation to their child. If Dills dropped Long off at 1:20 am, however, police concluded no one other than Long would have been able to end Conde, clean, and leave in a timely manner.

    Long endured a mistrial before she was convicted by a jury in 2005, with the presiding Judge Patrick F. Magers declaring a court trial would end with an acquittal based on the evidence presented. He sentenced Long based on the jury's decision. Long received 15 years to life, and CIP became involved. In 2016, forensic evidence that Conde perished well before Long arrived home came to light, with DNA evidence proving an unknown male was at the scene; in addition, the vicious threats made by the ex-girlfriend on Conde's life led Judge Magers to reverse Long's conviction.

    Unfortunately, the district attorney appealed Judge Magers's decision and Long was released on bail June 16, 2016. As of February 2019, Long's return to jail is still possible pending CIP's attempts to garner a pardon from California Governor Gavin Newsom. 

  • Timothy Atkins
    Photo: California Innocence Project / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 1.0

    Timothy Atkins

    On July 28, 1987, Vincente Gonzalez was slain during an attempted carjacking involving his wife Denise Powell. Powell identified Timothy Atkins, 17 years old at the time, and Ricky Evans as the culprits. Evans perished in prison before the trial. Powell's testimony bolstered the case against Atkins when she claimed the young man confessed to her. Based on Powell's statement from the pretrial, a jury found Atkins guilty, sentencing him to 32 years to life. 

    CIP became involved about twenty years later, finally catching up with Powell to interview her. At that time, Powell revealed she made up the confession. Powell did recant her previous testimony in court, assisting Atkins's exoneration by the same judge who convicted him nearly 23 years prior. Atkins was released in February 2007.

  • Michael Hanline
    Photo: Alissa Bjerkhoel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Michael Hanline

    Michael Hanline earned the unfortunate designation as the longest wrongfully incarcerated individual in California's history after a series of escalating behaviors of misconduct from police and a defense attorney named Bruce Robertson. He served 36 years. 

    In 1978, someone fired at biker J.T. McGarry multiple times, leaving him in a ravine in Ventura County, CA. A police informant told investigators that McGarry's girlfriend, Mary Bischoff, and Hanline were having an affair. The informant further claimed Hanline and a man named Bo Messer were responsible for ending McGarry. Though Bischoff did not corroborate the informant's story, police apprehended Hanline and Messer, later releasing the latter due to lack of evidence.

    Defense attorney Robertson became involved and held a meeting with the judge, excluding Hanline's defense attorney. Robertson also manipulated circumstances to push police away from clients he represented and toward Hanline. The police hid exculpatory evidence from the courts, sealing confessions made by other suspects. Hanline received a conviction and a sentence of life without parole.

    When the CIP became involved, they uncovered evidence concerning the unethical and unlawful actions of police and Robertson. They also tested DNA that proved Hanline was not at the scene. On November 24, 2014, Hanline was finally released, and he later received a $10 million settlement in civil court for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.