Doing Justice for Students and Clients

USC Gould School of Law • February 24, 2016
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Gould’s Post-Conviction Justice Project has impacted countless lives, and that’s what has kept co-director Michael Brennan going for 30 years

-By Gilien Silsby

1981 - USC Post-Conviction Justice Project launches; represents inmates at the all-male Federal Correctional Institution on Terminal Island.
1984 - Michael Brennan returns to USC ro supervise the PCJP full time.
1993 - PCJP begins representing women serving life sentences for murder convictions at the California Institution for Women.
2001 - PCJP partners with Convicted Women Against Abuse, an inmate-led group at the CIW, to pass Penal Code section 1473.5 creating habeas relief for women convicted of killing an abusive partner prior to the admissibility of expert testimony on "battered woman syndrome."
2004 - PCJP lobbies for important expansion of section 1473.5 to all prisoners convicted of any violent felony where expert testimony on "intimate partner battering" would have reduced their culpability.
2008 - The California Supreme Court expands judicial review of parole decisions and decides in favor of parole for PCJP client Sandra Davis Lawrence in a landmark case.
2008 - Elnora King is released from prison after serving nearly 24 years of a 15-years-to-life sentence for the death of her abusive husband in 1984. Michael Brennan and PCJP students launched an investigation finding she was innocent.
2009 - Connie Keel is released on parole after spending 29 years in prison for sitting in a car while her husband robbed and killed a shop owner. USC law student Adam Reich launched an aggressive Twitter and social media campaign to help expose the travails of his client.
2010 - PCJP expands to represent juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole.
2012 - The California Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, co-written and supported by PCJP, is passed by the California legislature and signed by the governor, giving a second chance to inmates sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles.
2013 - California Senate Bill 260, co-sponsored by the PCJP, is signed by the governor, allowing juveniles sentenced to lengthy adult sentences an opportunity for early release through a specialized parole process.
2013 - PCJP client Edel Gonzalez, serving a life term without parole for a crime committed at 16, is the first inmate resentenced under the California Fair Sentencing for Youth Act.
2014 - 74-year-old Mary Jones, represented by PCJP students, is released from prison after serving 32 years for a murder committed by her abuser.
2015 - After a successful parole hearing, Gonzalez is the first inmate released from prison under the California Fair Sentencing for Youth Act.

For the past three decades, USC Gould Professor Michael Brennan has mentored hundreds of fledgling lawyers. He has taught them how to be forceful when arguing in court, diligent when filing habeas petitions and sensitive when meeting nervous clients. 

Regardless of where they are today, many alumni say they are forever bound by their involvement with Brennan and the USC Gould Post-Conviction Justice Project (PCJP). As law students, they collectively have represented hundreds of clients — from juvenile offenders serving life terms to women convicted for the crimes of their abusers. 

Michael Brennan meets with law students in the Post-Conviction Justice Project clinic office. The pirate flag in the background flies when a client is released from prison. Photo by Mikel Healey

For Brennan, his work with the PCJP has fueled and fed him for the past 30 years.

“I think I’ve stuck with this so long because the work is so interesting,” he says. “The students change, the cases change, and the processes change. It never gets old or boring.”

Under the direction of Brennan and co-director Heidi Rummel, the PCJP offers hands-on legal training to USC law students. They represent clients at parole hearings and in state and federal habeas petitions and appeals challenging violations of constitutional rights.

They have also transformed the legal landscape in California. USC Gould students have fought for new legislation in Sacramento, taken several cases to the California Supreme Court and vigorously represented clients who could not afford attorneys. 

Although the stakes can be high for the Project’s clients, Brennan rarely gets rattled. He is known for his steady manner and patience.

“Mike’s even-keeled devotion to his students’ development, along with his willingness to allow his students to own their cases and take risks, is something I will always appreciate,” says Adam Reich ’09, an attorney with Paul Hastings in Los Angeles. 

Brennan graduated from UC Berkeley law school in the mid-1960s, just as the Vietnam protests were raging on campus and across the country. As a young lawyer, he took a job as a directing attorney at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), where he provided legal assistance for migrant farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley. CRLA successfully challenged inhumane working conditions relating to hygiene, housing, water issues and the tools workers used. His work brought him in close contact with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers union.

“It was a very memorable time to be in Delano,” Brennan says. “Every Friday night Cesar Chavez had a meeting with farm workers and gave passionate speeches that really brought everyone together. It was incredible legal training.”

After working for CRLA, Brennan served as a federal public defender in Los Angeles and a named partner at a private law firm. He also was a clinical law professor at Emory.

As a private firm attorney, Brennan fondly recalled his short teaching stints. He found civil practice boring and unfulfilling.

Michael Brennan in Los Angeles Superior Court in 2002 at one of the Project's first battered woman syndrome habeas hearings.

“I called a friend and said I’ve got to do something else.” Brennan recalls now. “He told me that USC law was looking for a clinical professor to help supervise its PCJP. I got the job, but took a huge pay cut. I didn’t know how I was going to pay the bills.”

But he was happy. Brennan oversaw students who represented male prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institution on Terminal Island. The success rate was high, and students learned how to be attorneys by practicing law in the real world.

The nature of the work has changed with the times. In the early 1990s, the Project began representing a handful of clients serving life-term sentences for murder at the California Institution for Women. Many of the clients had been convicted of first-degree murder for killing their abusers.

Word spread among the women at CIW, and PCJP’s caseload grew exponentially. Still, it was an uphill battle —few governors were releasing life-term inmates, not even women who were survivors of abuse, despite a new law allowing expert testimony on battered women syndrome.

“It was tough on the students to lose cases over and over again for clients who were legally entitled to be released,” Brennan says.

But the momentum began to shift in 2008 when the PCJP scored a major victory in the California Supreme Court. USC law students argued that longtime client Sandra Davis Lawrence’s due process rights had been violated by the governor’s decision to reverse her fifth grant of parole even though she had been fully rehabilitated. The Court agreed and opened the door to judicial review of arbitrary denials of parole for inmates who no longer pose a danger to society. 

“The ruling dramatically changed the legal landscape of judicial review in parole habeas challenges,” says Brennan. “We had the teeth we needed to get many of our clients past the parole board.”

At the time of the Lawrence decision, 21 PCJP clients had been released from prison in nearly two decades. In the next five years, another 73 clients were released through grants of parole or successful habeas challenges.

“We have a flag in the clinical space that we fly when one of our clients is released and these days the flag flies fairly regularly,” Brennan says.

Michael Brennan and co-director Heidi Rummel have transformed the legal landscape in California through their work with the Project. 

One of Brennan’s most memorable clients, Elnora King, was released in 2008 after more than 15 years of representation by the PCJP. “We knew she had not in fact killed her husband. But it was a long, uphill battle over several decades. We weren’t going to give up, but I thought we would never get her out,” Brennan says. “The parole board had a difficult time finding her suitable because she continued to assert she was innocent. Through our own investigation, we found evidence that she was in fact innocent.”

King says she owes her freedom to Brennan and the PCJP. “Mike meant the world to me,” she says. “I would’ve never been released without him. He helped me keep my sanity and my hope. What sets him apart is that he truly cares about me.” 

In 2010, Rummel and Brennan expanded the Project to represent juveniles serving adult life sentences. PCJP helped draft and pass the California Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which took effect in 2013. As a result, PCJP client Edel Gonzalez, sentenced to life without parole at16, was resentenced and recently paroled — the first in California under the new laws.

“The PCJP is always changing, and that’s what I like,” says Brennan. “If you told me 30 years ago that I would still be here, I’d think you were crazy, but this is what keeps me going.” 


To learn more about the PCJP, watch video “Changing Laws, Changing Lives

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