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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, May 24, 2005

In search of the innocent behind bars

By Ken Kobayashi
Advertiser Courts Writer

Last May, John Stoll was released from a California prison after spending 20 years behind bars following his 1984 conviction for molesting young boys.


For more information or to request a review of a criminal conviction, write to:

Hawai'i Innocence Project
California Western School of Law
225 Cedar St.
San Diego, CA 92101

Four of them had recanted their testimony, saying they had been coerced into making false allegations. The conviction was reversed and Stoll set free.

Now, the California Innocence Project, which helped Stoll get his release, is establishing a Hawai'i Innocence Project, it was announced yesterday.

The goal is to help prisoners here who may have been wrongfully convicted. Stoll is one of four inmates released with the help of the California Innocence Project.

"I am confident we will find that innocent people have slipped through the cracks of the Hawai'i system just as we have found in every other state where an innocence project has been established," said Justin Brooks, director and founder of the California project, which is based at the California Western School of Law.

The nonprofit California project is part of a national network of more than 40 Innocence Projects, in which team lawyers, law professors and law students work to free wrongly convicted prisoners.

The projects have had a significant impact. For example, work by an Innocence Project out of Northwestern University contributed to a 2000 moratorium on the Illinois death penalty, issued by former Gov. George Ryan. The group's work exonerated at least 11 death-row inmates. Hawai'i does not have the death penalty.

With the help of the University of Hawai'i law school and defense lawyers, the California project has started a similar program here.

Brooks is in Honolulu this week to teach seminars for state deputy public defenders.

Although Brooks already has received two Hawai'i cases for review, he said it's too early to say how many will be taken to court by the Hawai'i project.

In the vast majority of requests, the project rejects cases either because members don't believe the inmate is innocent or, even if they believe the prisoner is innocent, there's no way to prove it, Brooks said. Of those cases taken to court, the project succeeds in the majority of them, Brooks said.

The California Innocence Project reviews about 1,000 new cases a year and accepts about a dozen of them, he said. California has about 180,000 inmates, Brooks said.

Hawai'i's jail and prison population has been about 5,600 this year, according to the Department of Public Safety.

The idea of starting the project here was the result of discussions last year with deputy public defender Susan Arnett, who was excited about the California project and talked about starting one for Hawai'i, Brooks said.

State public defender Jack Tonaki supports the project. "Scientific advancements like DNA testing, often used to exonerate prisoners, is a powerful tool for correcting mistakes in the justice system," he said.

"Nothing is more unjust than being jailed for something you didn't do."

The California project has an annual budget of about $400,000, mostly from the California law school and private donations. The project's office includes three lawyers, an investigator and a case manager.

But much of the work is done by volunteers, including students who work for law school credits, Brooks said. They screen cases, track down and interview witnesses, draft legal requests and accompany lawyers in court.

For Hawai'i, the costs will be minimal since the California project will be absorbing the expenses, Brooks said.

Virginia Hench, a professor at the University of Hawai'i's law school, will be teaching and supervising law students here working on the project.

Avi Soifer, dean of UH's law school, applauded the project as providing an opportunity to the students.

"Law students will be able to learn a great deal through their supervised hands-on experience, while also serving the public interest in a very meaningful way," he said.

The students, Brooks said, are key to the project, providing the legwork and labor, but they also receive invaluable experience.

At California Western, about 150 students have gone through the project since it started five years ago.

Brooks said it's always gratifying to see an innocent prisoner walk free, but he believes that the students, who are the future lawyers, and what they learn will be the project's "biggest legacy."

Reach Ken Kobayashi at kkobayashi@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8030.