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Innocence Project has won freedom for 6 of 12 people it says were wrongly convicted of murder and other crimes

Innocence Project has won freedom for 6 of 12 people it says were wrongly convicted of murder and other crimes
Professor Justin P. Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, which is based at California Western School of Law in San Diego. (John Gastaldo / John Gastaldo)

And then there were six.

For years, lawyers from the California Innocence Project have been pushing Gov. Jerry Brown to grant clemency to a dozen people the organization says have strong cases for innocence but have “exhausted all of their legal avenues for relief.”

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They are known as the California 12 — a group of men and women convicted of crimes such as robbery and first-degree murder. Over the last five years, four men and one woman have been released from custody.

Soon, one more member of the California 12 could win his freedom.

Last month, Quintin “Q.T.” Morris was granted parole by the state Board of Parole Hearings. He has not been released from Folsom State Prison.

Morris, now 53, was sentenced to prison in 1994. He was convicted in Los Angeles County of three counts of attempted murder in connection with a 1991 shooting that targeted a group of teenagers returning home from a double date.

But according to the Innocence Project, based at California Western School of Law in downtown San Diego, Morris’ conviction was based on faulty witness identifications of both the gunman and the getaway car. An appellate attorney found that another man confessed to the shooting, prompting a judge to reverse Morris’ conviction.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office appealed, and the appellate court ruled it was too late for Morris to raise the issue of the other man’s confession because he could have but failed to do so at trial.

The court also found that the witness’ identification of Morris was strong.

Eventually, the California Innocence Project took up the case. About a week ago, project Director Justin Brooks announced that Morris would be freed after 24 years behind bars. Attorney Alissa Bjerkhoel represented him at the parole hearing last month.

On Sunday afternoon, Brooks stood on the steps of the state Capitol, where he led a rally — his latest attempt to draw attention to the California 12 and persuade Brown to grant clemency to its remaining members.

Brooks and others who work with or support the Innocence Project walked more than 700 miles from San Diego to Sacramento in 2013 to hand-deliver a dozen clemency petitions. Since then, Brooks has been tweeting at Brown — and the governor’s dog, Colusa Brown — daily. He’s been told that the governor has received the messages.

In an acknowledgment of that 2013 march and to mark Brown’s last 100 days in office, Brooks walked 100 miles from from the UC Berkeley campus to the Capitol, arriving Sunday. Videos posted on social media showed Brooks, dressed in a bright yellow T-shirt that read “XONR8” and shouting “Free the California 12!” as he and others marched.

“Let’s scream it loud so Jerry Brown can hear us!” Brooks said into his megaphone.

When Morris is let out of prison, he will be the sixth member of the California 12 to have won his release, according to the Innocence Project. The others are:

  • Michael Hanline, convicted of first-degree murder in Ventura County

  • William Richards, convicted of murder in San Bernardino County

  • Alan Gimenez, convicted of second-degree murder in San Diego County

  • Guy Miles, convicted of robbery in Orange County

  • Kimberly Long, convicted of second-degree murder in Riverside County.

“We have freed four of the 12 through litigation and two through the parole process,” Brooks said via text message. “Jerry Brown has 92 days left in office to look at these six remaining cases.

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“I am confident that if he reads through the files and really examines the evidence we have gathered he will conclude that these six Californians are innocent and he will free them.”

Those remaining on the list are:

  • Suzanne Johnson, convicted of assault on a child causing death in San Diego County

  • Dolores Macias, convicted of second-degree murder in Los Angeles County

  • Rodney Patrick McNeal, convicted of two counts of second-degree murder in San Bernardino County

  • Kiera Newsome, convicted of first-degree murder in Los Angeles County

  • JoAnn Parks, convicted of first-degree murder in Los Angeles County

  • Ed Contreras, convicted of first-degree murder in Los Angeles County.

Littlefield writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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