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Mother convicted of killing kids in Bell house fire is released after work by California Innocence Project

JoAnn Parks, left, and attorney Raquel Cohen celebrate Parks' release from prison Tuesday.
(California Innocence Project)

JoAnn Parks suffered the ultimate injustice nearly three decades ago when, based on faulty science, she was convicted of murdering her three children, who perished in a house fire that she escaped.

On Tuesday, Parks, 54, walked out of prison on parole, free for the first time in 29 years thanks to the work of the attorneys from the California Innocence Project.

At the time of her conviction in Los Angeles County, prosecutors alleged Parks started the fire that killed her children in 1989 at their Bell home. She was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

But in 2011, an arson review panel examined the evidence in Parks’ case and concluded the fire was most likely an accident, according to the California Innocence Project.

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“Ultimately, the panel concluded that, by modern standards, none of the allegedly incriminating evidence against Joann would withstand scrutiny today,” the Innocence Project attorneys said. “The investigators and jury were misled by bad science, or no science at all.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom granted Parks clemency last year, and the state parole board agreed to her release. Her attorneys said they will keep working to exonerate her.

“I will continue to fight to get her conviction overturned,” Raquel Cohen, the primary Innocence Project attorney on the case, said in a statement. “But now I will get to do it while she is enjoying her freedom.”

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Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, said he was “thrilled” Parks is free.

“Nothing could be worse than losing your children and then being wrongfully convicted of their murder,” Brooks said in a statement. “As we learn more about the science of fires, hopefully these kinds of wrongful convictions will no longer occur.”

Parks was one of a dozen incarcerated individuals the California Innocence Project dubbed the “California 12,” noting their particularly strong claims of innocence. Ten of the 12 have been exonerated, paroled, had their sentence commuted or verdict reversed.


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