A team of experienced post-conviction attorneys is establishing the Los Angeles Innocence Project (LAIP) at Cal State LA, bringing the fight to free the wrongfully convicted to the university.
Through the new partnership, the litigators will work alongside faculty and students in the university’s California Forensic Science Institute and School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics to identify and investigate cases of individuals with credible claims of actual innocence, and to litigate those claims where new evidence supports overturning a conviction.
LAIP at Cal State LA will be the first innocence project in the Innocence Network to be attached to a forensic science academic program in the U.S.
“We work to create systemic change to repair past injustices and prevent future ones, in order to create a more fair and more safe world,” said veteran appellate attorney Paula Mitchell, who will serve as director of LAIP at Cal State LA.
“We know that faulty forensics are a leading contributing cause of wrongful convictions. That is why this project—this first-of-its kind collaboration—is so important and needed.”
Mitchell joined Cal State LA officials and state legislators Bob Hertzberg, Steven Bradford and Wendy Carrillo at a news conference recently to announce the new partnership.
“The new Los Angeles Innocence Project at Cal State LA is an unprecedented coming together: a deeply dedicated group of post-conviction attorneys, experienced in exonerating the wrongly convicted has joined forces with a university that possesses a deep commitment to public service, and is home to a top-tier forensic science center and committed faculty and students eager to support the fight for justice,” Cal State LA Executive Vice President and Provost Jose A. Gomez said during the news conference in front of the university’s Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center.
The launch of LAIP at Cal State LA is made possible by a $1 million gift from wrongfully convicted exoneree Andrew Wilson, which will support the project in its first two years.
Wilson was convicted in 1986 of a murder he did not commit and served 32 years in prison before he was exonerated in 2017. Mitchell and her team of dedicated post-conviction attorneys worked tirelessly over two years to prove his innocence and secure his freedom. Wilson received a settlement from the city and county of Los Angeles after his conviction was vacated.
“I was compensated for my wrongful conviction and incarceration, and I am proud to use that money to be the Los Angeles Innocence Project’s founding donor,” Wilson said.
“The lawyers who helped me will work to free the many innocent prisoners in California’s prisons and prevent future wrongful convictions. No one should go through what I—and my family—went through.”
Cal State LA will also establish a $25,000 scholarship in Wilson’s name for students in the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics.
Cal State LA President William A. Covino thanked Wilson for his support of the project and said the new partnership aligns with the university’s commitment to engagement and service for the public good.
“The list of ways our students, faculty and staff serve the communities of Los Angeles is long and varied,” Covino said. “Through the Los Angeles Innocence Project at Cal State LA we extend our reach and expand our ability to meet a great need.”
As part of the new partnership, LAIP’s attorneys will work to test the viability, reliability and accuracy of evidence used to convict their clients in collaboration with faculty and students in the university’s California Forensic Science Institute, led by executive director Katherine Roberts.
“The Los Angeles Innocence Project at Cal State LA will provide our forensic science and criminal justice students with invaluable experience in service learning and social justice,” said Roberts, who is also a professor and director of the criminalistics graduate program.
“Exposing our students to actual innocence cases gives them a clearer understanding of how the justice system can sometimes make mistakes that lead to dire consequences.”
Roberts and her students have worked for several years with Mitchell and her team to help free wrongfully convicted clients, often examining decades-old forensic evidence and investigative methods. The first-of-its-kind partnership between the project and the academic forensic science program will bolster their work.
“The collaboration between the Los Angeles Innocence Project and Cal State LA’s California Forensic Science Institute is like no other in the country,” said Barry Scheck, who co-founded the New York-based national Innocence Project.
“I hope it will serve as a model for future collaborations between innocence organizations and scientists, because it will not only impact our ability to uncover cases where faulty forensics were responsible for wrongly convicting people in the past, it will help improve our ability to accurately assess and scrutinize the reliability of forensic evidence used in courtrooms today.”
Prior to launching LAIP, the attorneys worked together to free 13 clients, who collectively lost 273 years to wrongful incarceration, including exoneree Jane Dorotik. Dorotik, along with another exoneree Franky Carrillo, are joining LAIP at Cal State LA as policy advisors, hoping to use their personal experiences to help the project free others who were wrongfully convicted.
“I hope I can contribute some of the wisdom I have gained from my wrongful conviction, which was based almost entirely on faulty forensics, so I can give back to this community that has given so much to me,” said Dorotik, who was wrongfully convicted in 2001 of killing her husband, and had her charges dismissed in San Diego County earlier this year.
LAIP will be located in the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center at Cal State LA, which houses the laboratories of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s and Los Angeles Police departments and is also home to the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics and the California Forensic Science Institute. The school and institute are part of Cal State LA’s Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services, headed by Dean Ron Vogel.
“We are committed to identifying and remedying wrongful convictions in Southern California and look forward to working with our committed partners at the university and beyond to free those who have been incarcerated for crimes they did not commit,” Mitchell said.