Law school students are changing the legal landscape for the incarcerated serving life sentences in California.
Inmates’ prison terms and life sentences are being altered under the direction of Professor Michael Brennan and co-director Heidi Rummel.
They are with the University of Southern California Gould School of Law’s Post-Conviction Justice Project, said spokesperson Gillen Silsby in a recent news release.
This high-stakes work and hands-on legal training project has been mentoring hundreds of fledgling lawyers for more than 30 years. For dozens of people wrongly serving life sentences or whose constitutional rights were violated, the project at USC has had a significant impact.
Brennan has taught them to “be forceful when arguing in court, diligent when filing habeas petitions and sensitive when meeting fretful clients.” His Trojans have represented clients at parole hearings, state and federal habeas petitions and appeals challenging violations of their constitutional rights, Silsby said.
“Mike’s even-keeled devotion to his student’s development, along with his willingness to allow students to own their cases and take risks, is something I will always appreciate,” says Adam Reich, an attorney with the law firm of Paul Hastings.
“If you told me 30 years ago that I would still be here, I’d think you were crazy”
USC law students have represented juvenile offenders serving life terms and women convicted of defending themselves against abusers. That’s what has kept him going for the more than 30 years, said Silsby.
The Justice Project’s students initially represented male prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institution on Terminal Island. However, in the ‘90s, “The project also began working with clients serving life-term sentences for murder at the California Institution for Women. Many of them had been convicted of first-degree murder for killing their abusers,” Silsby wrote.
“Word spread among the women at the institution, and Justice Project’s caseload grew exponentially. Still, it was a struggle. 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,” the release said.
The students argued on behalf of Sandra Davis Lawrence after her due process rights had been violated by the governor’s decision to reverse her fifth grant of parole. In 2008, the Justice Project attained a historical victory in the California Supreme Court for her, the release noted.
The court concurred that she was completely rehabilitated. This subsequently opened the door to judicial review of arbitrary denials for paroling inmates who were no longer a danger to society, Silsby added.
According to the release, this ruling’s impact was dramatic. “At the time of the Lawrence decision, 21 Justice Project clients had been released from prison in nearly two decades. In the next five years, another 100 clients were released through grants of parole or successful habeas challenges.”
As the project continued to expand, in 2010, co-directors Brennan and Rummel began taking on juvenile cases when they received adult life sentences. The news release said the Justice Project “helped draft and pass the California Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which took effect in 2013.”
Brennan graduated from law school at University of California, Berkeley in the mid-1960s. “If you told me 30 years ago that I would still be here, I’d think you were crazy,” he said. “But this is what keeps me going.”