Marilyn Mulero was 21 years old when she received her execution date.
On May 12, 1992, two members of the Latin Kings gang were shot and killed in a bathroom in Humboldt Park in Chicago. There was one eyewitness to the shooting. The witness claimed to see a woman hand Mulero a gun, who then shot a man dead at midnight. Mulero was picked up by police the next evening and brought into the station, where she was denied legal representation and questioned for over nine hours.
Without counsel or sleep, Mulero signed a prepared statement that implicated her for both murders. Mulero’s lawyer, Jeremiah Lynch, advised her to take a plea bargain without any investigation of the case, paving the way for Mulero’s death sentence.
Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project (CIP), says that Mulero’s story changed his life. The injustice of her case not only inspired him to become a lawyer but also served as the driving force behind starting the non-profit organization the CIP, founded in 1999. According to their website, the CIP has three missions: freeing the wrongfully convicted from prison, working to reform the criminal justice system and training law students to become zealous advocates.
Brooks visited Point Loma Nazarene University on March 16, 2023 to speak to an Introduction to Criminal Justice class on the work he has done throughout his career. Marshall Fields, adjunct professor of the course, invited Brooks to speak to his class because of how the Innocence Project changed his perception of the criminal justice system.
“The criminal justice system is oftentimes neither just nor does it end in justice,” Fields said. “We slot criminal defendants into our bad categories in our minds. Slotting people into the bad rolls makes it easier to ignore injustices that these characters face; makes it easier to turn the page when we read about them in the news and; makes it easier to fill-in the story to make human or civil rights violations against these individuals make sense in our narrative.”
Mycah Heise, a first-year political science major and one of the 30 students in attendance, walked away from his discussion with a new understanding of the criminal justice system.
“Listening to Justin Brooks talk about the Innocence Project was eye-opening,” Heise said. “You always hear about the horrible criminals who are going to jail, and rightfully so, but I feel like no one has even spoken to me about those who don’t deserve their punishment. So hearing Brooks talk about how many people are wrongfully detained and/or represented by poor or unqualified lawyers was startling. What really struck me was how this could happen to any of us.”
Mulero is an example of how no one is exempt from a wrongful conviction.
“The case that changed my entire life was the case of Marilyn Mulero,” said Brooks. “27 years ago I was reading the newspaper about this 21-year-old sitting on death row in Illinois waiting to be executed. The article said she was sentenced to death on a plea bargain. I set up a meeting with her on death row.”
He took Mulero’s case up to the Illinois Supreme Court and succeeded in reversing her death sentence. What they would not do is withdraw the plea. Brooks would spend the next 28 years fighting to free Mulero from the penalty of a crime she did not commit.
While working to get Mulero free, the CIP has released 37 other people who would have otherwise spent the rest of their lives wrongfully incarcerated. According to Brooks, there are nearly 3,000 documented cases of wrongful convictions in the United States. The leading causes of wrongful convictions are bad identifications, false confessions, false informant testimony, official misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel.
Abbey Mandagie, second-year biochemistry major and another one of the students who heard Brooks speak at PLNU, was shocked to learn how many people are wrongfully convicted and imprisoned due to a faulty justice system.
“The Innocence Project was so intriguing to me and it was inspiring to hear about all the lives they have changed through their tireless fight for justice,” Mandagie said. “While my career path is a bit different, I think getting involved with the Innocence Project could be a great opportunity for any aspiring lawyers, social workers, or those hoping to get more involved in lobbying for those whose stories have not yet been heard.”
The work of the innocence project stretches beyond California. There are over 60 organizations established in the U.S. and worldwide, in locations such as Ohio, Washington, Florida, Arizona, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Holland and elsewhere.
“Over the years it has given me great joy to see our work go global in an ‘innocence movement’ that grows bigger and stronger every day,” Brooks said.
One of Brooks’ more well-known clients is Brian Banks. In 2002, seventeen-year-old Banks was wrongfully convicted of rape. Banks was a rising football star expected to play in the National Football League. Due to his wrongful conviction, Banks would not attend college to play football and would instead spend five years in prison.
Nearly a decade after his conviction, the woman who claimed Banks raped her recanted her statement and admitted to fabricating the story. The CIP presented this evidence to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office and launched an investigation into the case. After reviewing the evidence, the District Attorney’s Office ruled that Banks was wrongfully convicted. He was exonerated on May 24, 2012.
Banks’ story was turned into a film in 2018. The movie, Brian Banks, features Greg Kinnear as Justin Brooks and closely follows Banks’ road to redemption, including the many legal obstacles that he faced.
The work of the CIP is not one of instant gratification. Some cases are investigated for decades before exoneration is reached.
“What happened to Marilyn Mulero? Well, I started Marilyn’s case when I was 29 years old and I finished it at 57 years old,” Brooks said. “I finally got her out and exonerated this past October. That’s an example of just how hard this work is.”
Hearing about this strenuous, yet fulfilling line of work inspired Heise to seek out ways to get involved.
“Hearing all of this sparked an interest to get involved with the Innocence Project,” Heise said. “As someone who plans on going into law, I believe this would be a great way to get real-world experience and be a part of something bigger. Oftentimes justice is not served and the system is flawed in many ways, so I would love to be a part of a team that is proactively working on bringing justice to the criminal law world.”
If you are interested in learning more about why innocent people go to prison, Brooks gives an in-depth explanation in his book, You Might Go to Prison, Even Though You’re Innocent.
For more information on the California Innocence Project, visit https://californiainnocenceproject.org/about-the-project/
By: Camden Painton