A new movie that just debuted in theaters is highlighting the extraordinary story of Brian Banks and the San Diego attorneys who helped exonerate him.
In 2002, at just 17 years old, Banks was sentenced to six years in prison and forced to register as a sex offender for life for a rape he didn’t commit.
His accuser later reached out to him on Facebook and admitted to him on camera that she fabricated the story.
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That’s when the California Innocence Project got involved.
Banks had reached out to the San Diego-based nonprofit before, but with no indication that the victim was going to recant her story, they had to reject his case.
“In our system, the presumption of innocence goes away once you’re convicted. So now, we are starting with the presumption of guilt, and that’s very, very hard to undo,” said Alissa Bjerkhoel, litigation coordinator for the California Innocence Project.
Bjerkhoel said in order to reverse a conviction in California you must have “new evidence that completely undermines the prosecution’s case and points unerringly to innocence.”
The video with Banks’ accuser’s confession was just what they needed to prove his innocence.
“It was the type of evidence that is so compelling that you don’t get that very often, and as soon as I saw that video, I knew there was no way we were gonna turn this guy down,” Bjerkhoel said.
Bjerkhoel and the rest of the team at CIP, made up of mostly student volunteers from California Western School of Law, got to work.
On May 24, 2012, with Bjerkhoel and CIP founder Justin Brooks by his side, the judge reversed Banks’ conviction.
“It’s so crazy how a decade of just a horrible life and all of the things that Brian had to go through literally just got undone in like one second, with just a few words -- the judge just saying ‘petition granted,’” Bjerkhoel said. “It was overwhelming and I cried, Brian cried, and it was a very powerful moment.”
Bjerkhoel said seeing that powerful moment played out on the big screen still brings her to tears.
“Because it’s not just Brian’s case, but I have flashbacks of every single one of our clients where we’ve sat in that room and the judge says ‘petition granted,’and it is a flood of emotions, and it’s what we live for,” Bjerkhoel said.
The California Innocence Project gets about 1,500 new requests for assistance each year. To date, the nonprofit has helped to exonerate 27 people and have never charged for their services.
To learn more about the California Innocence Project and how you can help, visit www.californiainnocenceproject.org.