California Innocence Project Receives Award for Appellate Defense
California Western clinical program honored for work in appealing murder conviction
SAN DIEGO, April 5, 2011 – On Friday, the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law receives the Paul E. Bell Memorial Award from Appellate Defenders, Inc., recognizing the law school clinic’s work in appealing the murder conviction of Michael Hanline.
“I am honored that the California Innocence Project has been singled out for our work, in a community with such outstanding lawyers,” says Professor Justin P. Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project.
The award will be presented at the Annual Defender Dinner at the Westin Hotel San Diego.
Paul E. Bell Memorial Award
The Paul E. Bell Memorial Award is given annually by Appellate Defenders, Inc., a non-profit law firm administering the appointed counsel system for the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, in California. The award honors excellence in representation of the indigent accused on appeal and is named for the late Paul E. Bell.
Bell was a former staff member of Appellate Defenders and former chair of the San Diego County Bar Association’s Appellate Court Committee. He was a respected litigator, successfully arguing five of six cases before the California Supreme Court. His work influenced criminal appellate law in the areas of delinquency, juvenile delinquency, welfare law, no-issue cases, and sentencing.
The California Innocence Project receives the award for its work on the Michael Hanline case.
In November 1978, a biker named J.T. McGarry disappeared from his home in Ventura County, Calif. His body, discovered a few days later, had been shot multiple times and dumped on the side of a frontage road.
As an investigation unfolded over the coming weeks, Michael Hanline was taken into custody and ultimately convicted of the murder of McGarry. Hanline maintained his innocence, contacting the California Innocence Project for legal aid more than 20 years after his conviction, just as the Project was taking its first cases.
Eventually, the California Innocence Project discovered that Bruce Robertson, a defense attorney, made concerted efforts to steer the investigation away from some of his clients and toward Hanline.
It found two police reports that had been sealed before Hanline’s trial. The reports implicated others in the crime, calling into question the veracity and credibility of the prosecution’s case and its key witnesses.
Before Hanline’s trial, Robertson and the Office of the District Attorney asked the court for a secret hearing outside of the presence of Hanline and his attorney. They pleaded with the court to allow the police reports to be sealed, ultimately succeeding. Those reports did not come to light for more than 30 years, after the California Innocence Project took on the case.
Hanline Case Progresses
On October 22, 2010, the United States District Court for the Central District of California issued a report in the Hanline case, recommending that his conviction be overturned. Magistrate Judge Andrew Wistrich emphasized how the prosecution, investigators, and Robertson had colluded to violate Hanline’s constitutional rights.
“The prosecution was so successful in violating the trial court’s orders and its constitutional obligation that by the time the exculpatory evidence came to light – nearly three decades later – many of the important witnesses had died or disappeared,” wrote Wistrich in his report. “Permitting the prosecutor to engage in this sort of gamesmanship with impunity signals that the constitutional rules established in Brady and its progeny are merely ‘pretend rules’ that need not be taken seriously.”
Hanline remains incarcerated pending the court’s acceptance of Wistrich’s recommendation, which could take several more months.
Developing Real-World Skills
Participation in the California Innocence Project and other clinical programs at California Western offers students the opportunity to develop real-world legal skills through hands-on experience. By combining a traditional, broad-based legal education with a focus on practical training, students are better prepared to enter the legal profession.
“There is no substitute for live client experience,” says Brooks. “Just as doctors must train with real patients, lawyers must train with real clients and real problems. Over the years, many students represented Michael Hanline and each one will be a better lawyer because of the experience they had.”
About the California Innocence Project
Founded in 1999, the California Innocence Project is a law school clinical program dedicated to the release of wrongfully convicted inmates and providing an outstanding educational experience for students enrolled in the clinic. The California Innocence Project reviews more than a 1,000 claims from inmates each year and has earned the exoneration of eight wrongfully convicted clients since its inception.