On Dec. 8, 1985, an intentionally-set fire destroyed a small retail shop in the garment district in downtown Los Angeles. One person was killed, and Rosie Sanchez, a single mother of four, was charged and convicted of first-degree murder.
Twenty-four years later, Jenny Shanley Farrell, a 1999 La Cañada High School graduate and second year student at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, is trying to secure parole for Sanchez, who she believes was falsely convicted.
Working with the Post-Conviction Justice Project, a clinical program at USC Law that gives students hands-on experience, Shanley Farrell travels regularly to the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona to meet with Sanchez and prepare her for the grueling parole process.
Shanley Farrell has already scored a major victory. In mid-October, the California parole board found Sanchez suitable for parole. The recommendation will go before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in February.
The case against Sanchez was riddled with holes from the start, Shanley Farrell said. At the time of the incident, Sanchez, a legal Mexican immigrant who spoke no English, was operating her own small shop two storefronts down from the scene of the fire. The prosecution argued that the crime was financially motivated, Shanley Farrell said, and that Sanchez’s business was suffering from unwanted competition brought on by her neighbor. Tax records show, however, that her shop was prospering.
In addition, the defendant had multiple witnesses to corroborate her alibi — she was with her children at a friend’s house at the time the crime took place. Sanchez’s public defender called only one witness, Sanchez’ sister, to the stand to testify. It is normal, Shanley Farrell said, for jurors to disregard a witness who is related to the defendant because jurors assume such a witness would be willing to lie.
Lastly, the prosecution’s key witness, who was in the building when the fire ignited but was able to escape, kept changing his version of the story, Shanley Farrell said.
“The problem is that that eyewitness’ testimony changed dramatically from his initial interview to the trial," she said. "At first, the witness said he was asleep and he woke up to flames and ran up to the gate and saw Rosie and someone else running away Later he said he was awake and said he actually saw Rosie throw through the mail slot the thing that set the building on fire, some sort of lit rag.”
Sanchez has maintained her innocence from the beginning. During her more than two decades in prison, Shanley Farrell said, she has learned fluent English, and has worked extensively as a translator. She has also served as a peer counselor and clerk in the Special Care Unit at CIW. Sanchez’s prison supervisors have consistently described her as “exceptional” and “dependable.”
Sanchez has been able to maintain a close relationship with her children, all of whom went on to college and successful careers, Shanley Farrell said.
There have been low moments, too. In July 2008, her roommate attempted suicide by slashing her wrists. Sanchez interceded, applying pressure to the wounds and calling out for help.
Shanley Farrell’s meetings with her client, which began in September, consist of reviewing details of the case, as well as the progress she has made during her incarceration. The law student prepares Sanchez for her appearances before the parole board, rehearsing the questions she will have to answer.
The inmate became eligible for parole in October 2003. However, the parole board likes to see that the prisoner has gained insight into the crime, and shows sincere remorse. Her client has always expressed sadness for the loss of life, Shanley Farrell said, but can’t show remorse because she stands by her innocence.
The recent recommendation for parole by the board, Shanley Farrell said, hints that they too have doubts that she is guilty.
“Innocent people don’t usually get parole,” Sanchez said in a written statement. “I kept looking at the paper in shock. But then also relief because all these years all I’ve wanted is to have someone really look into my case. Finally someone believes me.”
The governor typically rejects 75% of parole recommendations. It is likely Shanley Farrell will have to appeal the governor’s decision by filing a writ of habeas corpus with the courts. There, the odds are somewhat better that the parole board recommendation will be upheld.
Working with Sanchez has been a pleasure, Shanley Farrell said, but also eye-opening. She described the case as “unique,” adding that she doesn’t think every prisoner has been wrongly convicted. Nevertheless, she said, there are things about the American legal system that she now questions.
“It is great,” Shanley Farrell said. “But it is also hard. She’s a really strong woman, but she has been through a lot. Some days she would be in a really good mood and some days she would feel pretty pessimistic about her chances.”
Students and their supervising professors at the Post-Conviction Justice Project have had success at righting injustice in the past. Last year, Post-Conviction Justice Project client and domestic abuse victim Connie Keel was released on parole after being turned down six times. The clinic allows students to solidify legal skills while also instilling a sense of social responsibility, said director Heidi Rummel.
“I think a lot of law school is focused on abstract legal principals, which is critical to being a successful lawyer,” Rummel said. “But the clinical education program really gives students the opportunity to work with real clients, to work on issues that have impact in the real world.”
The work done by the Justice Project on her behalf has lent her a sense of hope, Sanchez said. If released she said she hopes to finally “have a life with my family."
“I want to sleep in the same bed with my babies, who are now grown children,” she said. “I want them to fall asleep in my arms.”