The Second Annual Xoner8 Night Hosts Justin Brooks

Justin Brooks at The Second Annual Xoner8 Night, who was taking a poll from the audience about who would help him with Marilyn Mulero’s death row case. Photo Credit to Clara Wilks.

Before becoming the founding director of the California Innocence Project, Justin Brooks was a 28-year-old law professor in Michigan. “I was reading about a young woman on death row in Illinois who was sentenced to death on a plea bargain [in the news],” Brooks said to a public audience at the Fermanian Conference Center. According to Brooks, this is when it all started.

He decided to talk to the 23-year-old woman, Marilyn Mulero, on death row, and she said that her lawyer said the best thing she could do was to plea even though she was innocent.

This led Brooks to reverse Mulero’s death sentence after three years, and he fought for her innocence for 28 years. In 2020, Mulero was released from prison with the charges dropped.

The second annual Xoner8 night with Brooks, hosted by the Criminal Justice Society (CJS), a student club at Point Loma Nazarene University, was held on March 12. Over 40 people showed up to hear Brooks, author of “You Might Go to Prison, Even Though You’re Innocent,” speak about his book and his journey into innocence work.

Brooks said that getting a bargain with the death penalty is counter-intuitive because this is basically the worst deal the government has to offer someone as a punishment.

Nevaeh Vargas, a second-year criminal justice and sociology double major, is the founder of the CJS, which hosted this event. She said she hopes for the club to “continue having cool speakers, like Justin Brooks, building a community with people who have similar interests and passions and learning how we can grow together in that way.”

Marshall Fields, III, associate professor of sociology and advisor to the CJS, said that two of his classes attended the event: his Intro to Criminal Justice course (SOC 2009) and Criminal Law (SOC 4009). Fields said Brooks was a mentor from afar, but Brooks brought the realities of criminal justice to the PLNU campus. 

Brooks shared that there are problems with underpolicing in more rural settings and issues of over-policing in more urban settings. He said that living in the suburbs provides a balance between police knowing how to process a crime scene and not “looking to round everyone up on a corner.”

Brooks focused on different topics in his book, including identifying and misidentifying suspects, what happens when a witness lies, and the injustices of being poor and/or a person of color.

When it comes to misidentifying suspects, the problem is that people often look similar to each other, and memories are faulty, according to Brooks.

Ella Lawson, a third-year psychology major with a minor in criminal justice, said she found this topic interesting, as it tied her psychology and criminal justice interests together.

“As a psych major, we learn about how malleable our memory is,” Lawson said, “At the same time, witness testimony is highly regarded by juries.”

Brooks shared that he worked many cases with people who spent years in prison due to bad identification. Gerardo Cabanillas was Brooks’ 40th case, and he was freed after 28 years in prison.

Brooks said many people go to prison because of lies, like false testimonies. He said sometimes, those lies can come from snitches. “California leads the nation in snitches,” said Brooks. “Orange County is the leading county in the United States for the most bad snitch cases.”

One example is Brian Banks, who was falsely accused of rape and kidnapping from a 15-year-old girl. He ended up being freed after five years in prison because Brooks said Banks got a Facebook friend request from the woman who accused him, apologizing for lying about him raping her. A movie was made about Banks’ experience: “Brian Banks.”

When it comes to being poor and/or a person of color, Brooks said this is hard to make the main argument of a case, but he also said that “Bias is a standard human condition needed to survive.”

However, bias is a negative thing when it becomes prejudice.

Brooks wants to be connected to his clients. He said, “The less connected we are to other people, the less we relate to them; we see them differently.”

Fields hoped that every student would walk away from the talk feeling that they could make a difference. He said that now people have heard the information and know, and they have no choice but to remember the reality of the people who are falsely convicted.

“You’re exposed,” Fields said, “I’m hoping you don’t turn your back now because you have a duty.”