Justin Brooks, the man who helped free 35 innocent people from the death penalty or life imprisonment


When he was a young law professor in Michigan, United States, Justin Brooks saw a story in the newspaper that caught his attention.

It was a report on Marilyn Mulero, a 21-year-old woman who had been sentenced to death for a double murder in Chicago after her legal team encouraged her to agree to a settlement with the prosecution whereby she forfeited the opportunity to have a jury trial.

Brooks became interested in the woman and why she had accepted the deal with the prosecution.

“He waived the right to a trial by accepting a plea agreement and what he got was a death sentence,” says the 56-year-old lawyer and law professor.

“I went to meet her and he told me he was innocentSo I went back to the law students I was teaching and said ‘Who wants to help me investigate this case?’ and four students raised their hands ”.

What followed was like a scene from a movie.

One in which Brooks and his students sit in his kitchen one night and review all case reports.

Justin and his wife Heidi
Justin brooks

Since those beginnings, Brooks has helped free 35 people from the death penalty or life imprisonment.

The BBC spoke to him to find out what drives him in his quest for justice.

Witness lies

When they began to investigate that first matter, Brooks and his assistants found several failures in the police investigation and in the case of the defense.

Among them, Brooks says, was the fact that the questioning of the suspect lasted 14 hours.

Further investigation found that the woman’s attorneys had not visited the crime scene nor collected evidence, which means they relied on witness statements.

When Brooks himself visited the scene, he discovered that a key witness had lied about visibility he had to capture what happened from the window of his apartment, because the obstacles and the angle of his house made it impossible.

“His [abogado] he did not investigate the case, “says Brooks.

Court
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“We discovered that the woman who claimed to be a key witness had invented lto history and was the girlfriend of one of the victims.

“I stood right where she said she saw the murder on a bright sunny day and couldn’t see [el escenario] and this shooting happened at night. There were trees blocking the view and a food truck. It was impossible to have visibility of what happened from there, he continues.

“If the attorney had done something as simple as that, he would have known that the witness was lying and the case would have collapsed.”

Brooks took over the case and filed an appeal.

It took years of legal work to overturn the conviction.

“He faced a new jury and fought for his life,” he says.

Justin Brooks and Marilyn Mulero
Justin brooks
Justin Brooks was instrumental in releasing Marilyn Mulero from prison after 25 years.

Mulero finally got out of jail in April of last year, 25 years after Brooks and his students began researching.

He now has a new job and has reunited with his family.

The real killer, Jackie Montanez, has now admitted that she planned the murder alone.

“For more than 25 years I fought in every court, and when I got the call about Marilyn’s release, I literally couldn’t speak,” says Brooks.

I started the case when I was 29 years old And it ended when I was 55. It was emotional.

“The law students who helped me are middle-aged now. They cried a lot when I told them the news ”.

Greg kinnear
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Actor Greg Kinnear plays Justin Brooks in a movie.

That case and others like it inspired Justin Brooks to co-found the California Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that relies on external funding and donations for its operation.

Work together with nine full-time legal staff members and 100 volunteers to help free people who have been wrongly convicted, particularly those who spend decades behind bars.

Soccer star

One of the most prominent cases was that of American football star Brian Banks, who at the age of 17 he was sentenced to six years in prison for a rape that he did not commit.

The woman eventually dropped her allegations and apologized, and Banks asked Brooks for help in overturning her conviction.

It was successfully reversed in 2012 and the case is the subject of the film Brian Banks in which actor Greg Kinnear plays Justin Brooks.

Justin and Brian Banks
California Innocence Project
Justin’s job to free Brian Banks has been turned into a movie.

But Brooks cannot take care of all cases by those who contact you.

He says deciding which cases to accept and which to reject is difficult.

“Unfortunately, I say no to most cases because it is important be able to prove your innocence and not just gathering evidence, “he explains.

“The hardest part of the job is say no all the time. It really weighs me down. I have to start getting out of that part of the process or I won’t be able to keep doing this. “

A street in Los Angeles
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Justin Brooks’ project is based in California.

“Each one is a tragic case. Even when people are not innocent, it is a tragic case: there are lives destroyed, victims killed, he points out.

“I get to a point where I can’t put another case in my head. It becomes too much.

“I drive through California and my wife has to keep me from telling her where all the murders took place.

“I tell you where to found this body or where that homicide occurred. I can’t go through a place without thinking about those things, ”he says.


Justin Brooks with a following
California Innocence Project
Justin Brooks on a march.

What is the California Innocence Project?

  • It is a non-profit organization that investigates cases of innocent people in prison or on death row.
  • Justin Brooks stopped teaching and co-founded this project in California in 1999. It is one of the largest of its kind, accepting around 150 cases a year.
  • In 22 years he has helped 35 innocent people to go free.
  • The organization is one of around 60 similar projects that exist in the United States, or the 40 that exist in Europe and Asia.
  • In addition, Brooks helped establish 25 in South America.
  • When in the UK, Brooks also works with the London, Manchester and Cardiff projects and helps train law students.

Justin Brooks in Belper
Justin brooks
Brooks used the confinement in the city of Belper to work on his latest book.

The stress of his job leads Brooks to travel regularly to his second home in UK, in the town of Belper, Derbyshire, where he likes to take long walks and lose himself in British country life.

There you have a 240-year-old farmhouse he shares with his Derbyshire-born wife Heidi, whom he met in 1988 when she was working in America as au pair.

The couple usually spend several months a year in England visiting their friends and family, especially at Christmas.

Three years ago they decided to buy their own cabin to have a place to stay on these visits, and Brooks has fallen in love with the escapism it provides.

“I have too many cases in my head and it’s overwhelming“, He adds.

“So I love getting on the plane and getting out of there. Belper fascinates me, because I’ve never been involved in anything related to what criminal there“, It indicates.

“When I go to walk through the town of Matlock, I can stop and relax and I am completely isolated of the world”.


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