Professor Michael Brennan’s passion for justice for deserving clients is matched only by his commitment to educating and empowering young lawyers
Professor Michael Brennan with PCJP students
With countless career accomplishments now in the rearview mirror, Professor Michael Brennan says he is “most proud of what the Post-Conviction Justice Project has been able to do over the last 25 years.” Indeed, from its inception – when successes for clients were the exception, not the rule – and continuing to today as PCJP has won the release of more than 200 clients and led the changes in law for many others to be released, Brennan has been the common denominator.
His students, colleagues and clients, however, will most likely carry with them much more than memories of his profound legal acumen and objective measures of success. For them, what truly set Brennan apart was far more personal: his boundless humanity, humility, wisdom and willingness to share his talents for the benefit of his students, clients and colleagues alike.
“My time with Mike in PCJP was the highlight of my law school education and played a huge role in my decision to become a public defender,” explained Michael Parente ’12. “He never made me feel like I was just assisting him on his cases. He was supportive but always gave me primary responsibility. More than anything else in law school, that dynamic helped me grow as a lawyer.”
Fight for Justice: From the Fields to the Federal Public Defender’s Office
Brennan has dedicated his legal career to the fight for justice. In the middle of the Vietnam protests in Berkeley, Calif., where he studied as an undergraduate and law student, Brennan relocated to California’s Central Valley to work alongside Cesar Chavez. As directing attorney of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), he represented migrant farm workers in challenging inhumane working conditions.
Brennan then launched his storied criminal career from the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Los Angeles where he defended indigent clients at trial and in death penalty appeals, including two such cases in which the death sentence was set aside. After a short stint in private practice and as a clinical professor at Emory Law School, Brennan joined the faculty at USC Gould as a co-director of PCJP.
In the early years of PCJP, Brennan supervised students representing clients in federal prisons on parole and habeas corpus. Many clients were Mariel Cuban refugees who were indefinitely detained in federal custody simply because they could not be deported to Cuba.
In the mid-90s, in response to changes in federal law, PCJP shifted focus to advocate for clients serving life-term sentences at the California Institution for Women. Brennan recalls that it was an uphill battle for many years; the prison administration blocked access to clients and very few clients were released through the broken and political parole process. But Brennan and PCJP students led the charge to bring hope where there was none. One client recalls women crying in the mail room when they received letters from PCJP agreeing to take their cases.
Maryann, a longtime PCJP client twice convicted in California and Hawaii for the crimes of her abuser, speaks of Brennan with a reverence born of deep gratitude; he fought for over a decade for her freedom. A model of rehabilitation, Maryannwas repeatedly denied parole in California based solely on the Hawaii conviction. So Professor Brennan and the PCJP team took on the Hawaii conviction, challenging multiple legal errors in the original trial. PCJP won an appeal for a new trial in the Hawaii case, and Maryann was retried and convicted as an accomplice, which eventually led to her parole in California. Following her extradition to Hawaii, Brennan successfully challenged the Hawaii parole board leading to Maryann’s release in 2014.
“Mike’s continued belief and support and fight for me meant the world. I don’t think anyone else would have done all that work pro bono. I absolutely owe my freedom to him,” she said.
PCJP Co-Director Heidi Rummel, left, with Mike Brennan and Michael Parente (JD 2012), who joins PCJP this year as co-director
Professor Heidi Rummel joined PCJP from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2006. “Mike gave me a chance. We had been on opposite sides of the courtroom, but he brought me into this work, mentored and supported me, and most of all he believed in me. I wanted to work on the issue of juveniles being sentenced to life without possibility of parole — legislative policy advocacy and direct representation. Mike said, ‘let’s do it’ and never looked back.”
Tommy was sentenced to die in prison for a crime he committed as a 17-year-old. He will never forget the judge’s pronouncement 23 years later that she believed he was capable of rehabilitation and deserved a chance to earn release on parole. As he broke down in tears, Tommy felt a hand, “like a big paw,” on his shoulder. Brennan’s simple gesture of support was emblematic of his quiet guidance and wisdom throughout Tommy’s long legal road culminating in a hard-fought resentencing proceeding.
“Mike was always in the background, but when I finally met him, we were able to get on the same page right away. I could feel his calm and confidence; I knew I was in good hands.” Tommy equates being represented by PCJP to “winning the freedom lottery.”
Wanting to Be Like Mike
Parente, who followed Brennan’s career trajectory when he joined the Federal Public Defender’s office, says that everyone in that office still speaks of Brennan as a “legend,” explaining that “in our own ways, we all want to be like Mike.” And Parente will prove the truth of his own statement when he takes on the role of co-director of PCJP this spring. And so, Brennan’s PCJP legacy continues.
On the eve of his retirement, and with characteristic humility, Brennan says he feels “lucky” to have been part of PCJP. But the truth is that Brennan’s students, clients and colleagues are the lucky ones.