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“Life and Innocence” panel discussion explores PCJP role in criminal justice advocacy

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Personal stories illustrate damage that can be caused by criminal justice system

By Leslie Ridgeway

The damage that can be done by the criminal justice system was the subject of a recent panel discussion hosted by USC Post-Conviction Justice Project (PCJP) Co-Director Prof. Heidi Rummel, focusing on PCJP’s criminal justice advocacy as illustrated by the gripping experiences of two former clients.

Former PCJP client David tells story of his conviction for a murder he never confessed to, as Prof. Heidi Rummel, PCJP alumna Tracy Dressner and former client Leif listen.

Rummel moderated the panel with former clients David and Leif and PCJP alumna Tracy Dressner (JD 1990), who handled Leif’s appeals. Leif was paroled from prison with assistance from PCJP and California Senate Bill 394, a bill championed by PCJP that passed in 2017, creating a pathway to release for juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Noting that PCJP is not an “innocence project,” Rummel said the purpose of the talk was to highlight the potential of damage caused by the criminal justice system with personal stories, and the potential of PCJP to fight for those who did not receive “justice” on the front end.

“Today we’re here to talk more generally about our criminal justice system and when it doesn’t get it right, and our role as a clinical project,” Rummel said.

SB 394 allows parole hearings, after 25 years of imprisonment, for inmates sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed while they were juveniles. The panel discussion started with a short clip from the documentary “The Trials of Marvin Mutch,” about a former PCJP client who was released from prison in 2016 after serving 41 years for a crime he did not commit. Nineteen years old when he was convicted, he was denied parole 20 times.

“You’ll never see daylight again”

Panelists David and Leif told stories similar to Mutch’s. Both were teenagers when they got involved with gangs. and both were convicted as shooters in murders they did not actually commit. David never confessed to the crime he was accused of, but after four years in county jail waiting for retrial, he lost hope and accepted a plea offer to a 15-year sentence.

“For 23 years I refused to go to the parole board,” he said. “(I was told) unless you come in here and tell us you’re guilty, you’ll never see daylight again. The other inmates kept saying it’s easier to go in and say you did it. I said ‘I won’t.’”

Leif, who was 16 when he was incarcerated, said his co-defendants told authorities he killed the victim, even though there were witnesses who contradicted those accounts. Dressner noted that Leif was not allowed a phone call when he was arrested and a witness brought in by police gave false statements.

“The police and prosecutor had to have gotten this guy to say this,” Dressner said. “The self- righteousness of the judge and prosecutor about how sure they were … it was all based on lies. To me, it’s unforgivable.”

“The second chance I’ve been given, it’s not been taken lightly”

Leif said the experience threatened to consume him with bitterness, until he made a decision to choose a spiritual life path that emphasized accountability for his actions. He became emotional when talking about the crime he was involved with that led to another person’s death.

“In 1993 I decided to go out with six gang members and rob people. During the night, we took the life of someone who was dear and loved and had a family,” he said in a halting voice. “It’s a regret I carry every day of my life. The second chance that I’ve been given, it’s not been taken lightly because my family got me back and theirs didn’t.”

Audience members asked David and Leif how they accessed legal information while in prison. Leif called the process “horrible.”

“We have to turn in slips a week in advance to go to the law library and you can only go every two weeks,” he said. “You have to handwrite notes. The books are outdated. We would be forced to write the Los Angeles Law Library asking for information, and the mail was three weeks to get a letter. It was miserable.”

Prof. Heidi Rummel, co-director of PCJP, talks about the project's work creating parole opportunities for young adults through the legislative process.

When asked how inmates find out about PCJP, Rummel noted the Project is pretty well known throughout the prison system – and is becoming a force in Sacramento.

“Through the legislative process we’ve been able to create parole opportunities for young adults who would otherwise die before seeing a parole board,” she said. “We do workshops inside the prisons to educate the men and women inside about the new laws and the parole process. The law students, together with former clients, meet with men in prison and tell them what they have to do to earn release on parole.”


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