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‘Project For The Innocent’: Loyola Law School on a mission to exonerate inmates


Wrongful convictions are nothing new. But more African-Americans get arrested than Whites, for a crime they have not committed. This is the result of false statements by eye witnesses, as well as false confessions, and poor police work, and even coercion. It’s not just a racial issue, it’s an inequality issue. Often times, young Black men who got wrongfully arrested, come from low-income households, and are unable to pay bail or bond. Who’s at fault?

“In my experience, the officers have been willing to talk with us, but I think everyone believes that they’re doing the right thing when they’re doing their job,” Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent Post-Graduate Fellow, Ariana Price said. “There’s this phenomenon called ‘cognitive dissonance’ where even if you know you made a mistake, your brain just can’t comprehend it’s wrong because we believed it was right. So I think that everyone believes that they’re doing the right thing for the most part.”

Mistakes are human, but when many mistakes happen, society eventually questions the system. As the Chicago Tribune reported, “The rate of wrongful convictions in the United States is estimated to be somewhere between two percent and 10 percent. That may sound low, but when applied to an estimated prison population of 2.3 million, the numbers become staggering. Can there really be 46,000 to 230,000 innocent people locked away?”

To shed light on some of those convictions that had been handled “sloppy,” legal aid non-profit organizations, such as “The Innocence Project,” as well as “The Loyola Project for the Innocent (LPI)” of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, were created to help convicts who are wrongfully incarcerated, prove their innocence.

Price “wears many hats” as she said, since it’s a relatively small operation.

“We are a group of certified attorneys and 18 students now, the group of students changes every year. Each of those students has two cases,” Price said. ”Some of those are in litigation, or about to be in litigation, and the others are just in an investigative stage.

“My role is therefore multifaceted. I do everything from administrative duties, assisting with managing students and overseeing the class component of our clinic, to managing cases, investigating claims of innocence, visiting our clients in prison, and writing motions and petitions.”

According to the non-profit organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Whites. And it’s not just men, but also women. The incarceration rate of African-American women is twice as much than of White women.

“Historically, exonerees tend to be male, and an overwhelmingly amount, and minorities, in an overwhelmingly amount,” Price said. “We do have some female clients, and we’re trying to focus more on women clients, just because we know they’re under-represented in the exoneree population, and also we are working on a woman’s case right now, and having worked on Maria Mendez case, we see how women are affected differently.”

“The Loyola Project of the Innocent” has been around since 2011, and was founded by Professor Laurie Levenson, and former student, and now Program Director Adam Grant. So far LPI freed eight people in eight years, Price said.

“Our office receives hundreds of requests for assistance every year,” Price said. “The the investigation process is lengthy as we have to recreate the record, and track down witnesses and conduct the thorough investigation that should have been done by both law enforcement and the defense counsel at the time of the crime and the trial. This process can take years. I estimate that we are currently actively investigating in some capacity about 50 cases. We are a group of certified attorneys and 18 students now, the group of students changes every year. Each of those students has two cases. Some of those are in litigation, or about to be in litigation, and the others are just in an investigative stage.”

When asked about the racial inequalities in prison, if there were racial factors that played a role, and if the system dealt with disproportions, Price agreed.

“I believe the disparity in the minority prison population and the minority population of the U.S. is reflective of the racism and bias in our criminal justice system as well as a result of poverty that can also be linked to our country’s history of racism, ” Price said. “Everyone deserves a fair trial and when there is misconduct and/or bias due to someone’s race or ethnicity at any point from arrest to post-conviction, this will most likely result in a constitutional violation.”

Price’s recent success was that of Michael Tirpak, 43, and Reggie DeAndre Mallard, 34. Although she personally didn’t help on the case.

“Our office helped Michael Tirpak, another clinic at Loyola Law School, the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing clinic assisted Mr. Mallard,” she explained. “Our attorneys, staff and students have worked on securing Mr. Tirpak’s freedom since 2015 and could not be more thrilled that he is free and able to be with his family.”

As ABC7 News reported, the two men, who were wrongfully convicted, were released in February with the help of the Loyola Law School team. Tirpak has spent 25 years in prison for a murder he was wrongfully convicted for. Mallard has spent 16 years in prison for a crime he hasn’t committed, either.

“We get tons of letters asking for our help, so what we try to do is to look into those cases and screen them to see if they fit our screening factors whether we able to help them. Once we determined they fit into our criteria, that we would be able to help them, then we would start to investigate,” Price said. “We do try to get the old records. Some of the cases are very old, and getting the records is very difficult. It’s one of the biggest parts of the investigation in the beginning because we need to see what the record says so that we can figure out how we can dispute it.

“First we want to see what happened at trial. What went wrong, where did they fall short, did a witness say something at the stand and now saying that they lied, there are so many possibilities[…] the problem is, the Court of Appeals will destroy records, or the transcripts will get destroyed after 20 years. So people with older cases, it’s really difficult to get the court records. So that’s the first thing we’re trying to do, because a lot of times we get lucky and the Court of Appeals is behind on destruction of the records […]. And we also get the records from whatever that client has, their family has, their former trial attorney has […] after that, that we’re really start doing the investigation that should have been done. A lot of times, what happens is law enforcement either had tunnel vision and think that they have the right person, or there’s a witness that came forward, so the investigation stops short. So we try to do as much of thorough investigation as possible. ”

According to ABC7 News, Tirpak was convicted of first-degree murder in 1996, for being an accomplice to a murder during an attempted robbery. But he sustained to be innocent, and said he had no involvement. Evidence showed, he was using a pay phone at the time, the murder took place. Thanks to a new bill signed into the “murder felony rule” by Governor Jerry Brown, Tirpak was the first man to walk free after being wrongfully charged of first-degree murder.

The new bill took place in September, 2018, and is called Senate Bill 1437, which corrects the “felony murder law.” By stating that someone can only be convicted of a “felony murder,” if they directly assisted with the homicide or if they were “a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life,” The Sacramento Bee reported.

Since Tirpak had an alibi, and wasn’t present, as well as didn’t know the suspects, he was able to ask to get re-sentenced. However, because of the good and hard work of Loyola Law School’s students, Tirpak is a free man.

Mallard on the other hand, got arrested when he was 17-years-old, for allegedly murdering a man. He was sentenced to 26-years-to-life in prison. Mallard has claimed his innocence as well, but agreed to take a plea deal of 11 years for voluntary manslaughter to avoid spending additional time behind bars, according to officials with the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic at Loyola Law School,” NBC Los Angeles reported.

“Changes need to be made,” Mallard told ABC7 News. “It shouldn’t just be about trying to get convictions. It should be about putting the right people in jail and not the wrong people.”

Indeed. Changes need to take place in the justice system of the United States.

“We do a lot of the investigation on the cases so we will go and interview witnesses,” Paige McGrail, a Loyola Law School student, who worked on the Tirpak case, told ABC7 News.”We’ll read through police reports and try and figure out what happened.”

As ABC7 News reported, the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic at Loyola also helped Mallard because they discovered prosecutorial misconduct in his case.

“Our investigations attempt to recreate the thorough investigation that should have been conducted by law enforcement and defense counsel,” Price said. “We start from the very beginning and work our way forward, looking at the evidence or lack thereof, witnesses that were spoken to or not spoken to, and we also attempt to get all materials that the client would have been entitled to at the time of trial.”

According to the NAACP, in 2014, African-Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34 percent of the total 6.8 million correctional population. And if African-Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as Whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40 percent.

As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported, “Despite the fact that Whites engage in drug offenses at a higher rate than Blacks do, Blacks are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate that is 10 times greater than that of Whites.”

Another of Price’s cases was Maria Mendez. Mendez, a grandmother, has been wrongfully convicted of causing the death of her grandson, Emmanuel, due to “shaken-baby syndrome(SBS).” Mendez was charged with a 25-years-to-life sentence, but released after 11 years, thanks to Price and her team.

“In wrongful convictions, women are usually convicted of crimes that occurred in the house against a loved one,” Price said. “So typically, in roles that women play in our society, and these gender roles, if something happens, such as a child stops breathing, it’s generally pointed to the woman who’s in charge of that child. So we’re trying to focus on female inmates, as well as male.”

Matthew Charles, 52 is another case. He didn’t work with the LPI, but his case was interesting, and poorly handled. As NBC News recently reported, Charles had to turn himself in again, after two years of freedom, because there was an early release mistake, based on his record. Charles got arrested in 1996 because he sold crack cocaine, and illegally possessed a gun. However, he was a repeat offender and was also charged with burglary, assault, and kidnapping. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison. But according to authorities, Charles was a “ model inmate,” and therefore he was able to apply for early release several times, and in 2016 a jury granted his request. However, federal prosecutors saw it differently, and fought the ruling. Followed by an appeals court that agreed, Charles wasn’t qualified for early release because of his record, and ordered him back to serve another nine years. This decision caused a public outrage, and President Donald Trump would sign a bill that rewrote federal drug laws. As NBC News reported, “The result was the First Step Act, which made retroactive a 2010 law easing mandatory-minimum sentences for crack offenses.”

Charles is a free man now and continues to finish where he left off. But not all exonerated prisoners are able to find a connection to society. Often times, it’s hard for them to integrate back into a social life, and become a functional member. Many who have been arrested in the ‘80s or early ‘90s struggle with new technologies and how to apply for jobs, or even look for jobs.

Legal experts believe the problem lies with the justice system. It is said to need reforms, which is part of a growing national debate. The United States has more people incarcerated than elsewhere in the world. According to the NAACP, the United States makes up about five percent of the world’s population and has 21 percent of the world’s prisoners. Critics say the justice system has incarcerated a disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic men while it focuses on punishment, rather than rehabilitation opportunities.

“I do think that we need to reform our system, greatly. Both in law enforcement, and criminal justice, and prisons as well. I think overall we need a reform,” Price said. “The work that we do at ‘The Project for the Innocent’ is bringing to light the issues that need to be fixed, and I hope there is a way throughout the nation, that the more people that get exonerated, the more the issues become something that people are willing to see as a problem, and like to change. Our goal is not only to help these individuals who are wrongfully convicted and in prison, get out and have a good life after they’re free, but our goal is also to create a way of change in the criminal justice system.”

Another problem is, that most prison facilities have a high rate of infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B, and C, as well as STDs. However, the mortality rate caused by those viruses is higher for persons of color than it is for Whites. An average of six per 100,000 White inmates die per year, while its 17 per 100,000 Black inmates per year.

Besides the organizations that fight for exonerees, “IMPACT LA” in collaboration with OneJustice, is another project that works with ex convicts, to help them with housing, public benefits, or other legal issues. Established in 2013, the birth of IMPACT LA was a direct response to a 2012 meeting in Washington D.C. between former Vice President Joe Biden and members and senior management of the Association of Pro Bono Counselboard and board member’s firm. In the meeting, issues such as access to justice, the delivery of legal services to the poor, and the role of pro bono attorneys were addressed. That lead to APBCo initiating the IMPACT Project. IMPACT LA is a partnership between Los Angeles area legal services organizations, APBCo-member private law firms, the Jenesse Center (a Domestic Violence Intervention Program), and OneJustice. IMPACT LA basically works with pro bono legal aids, which means attorneys help low income prisoners to get a fair trial, free of charge.

As for Price, she said she always wanted to make a difference in society. Especially to be involved in social justice. After college, she decided to give law school a try. Which she successfully mastered.

“I took the LSAT [Law School Admission Test] and then worked at an Americorps program called City Year, where I worked with students at a middle school in Watts. I fell in love with teaching and taught at schools in South LA, Compton, and East LA,” Price said. “While working with my students, I was able to see how the criminal justice system had a ripple effect on the communities, and that is what inspired me to return to school and get my law degree.

“It was not until I was a student at Loyola Law that I had the opportunity to be involved with an innocence project. After being exposed to the unbelievable injustices that have led to the imprisonment of our clients and so many others, I was motivated to continue working with the project.”

Price’s plan is to continue to work towards a better criminal justice system in America, a lengthy process that requires patience and dedication.

“I hope to remain, […] where I’m doing this work and helping people and inciting change in the justice system,”Price said, “whether that’s civil rights litigation, or continuing post conviction litigation.”