An Interview with Justin Brooks of the California Innocence Project
Justin Brooks, the Director and Founder of the California Innocence Project and a Professor of Law at California Western School of Law in San Diego, California, was one of the main speakers at CAPA's recent Human Rights Conference.
The day long event welcomed powerful speakers to share their stories and their enthusiasm on this important topic with CAPA students and staff in London, Dublin, Florence and Boston through global network technology that allowed participation and engagement across cities.
Justin has practiced as a criminal defense attorney for more than 25 years and has served as counsel on several high profile criminal cases. He has been successful in exonerating many wrongfully convicted clients and has been deeply involved in reforming justice systems in Latin America throughout his career. He has published extensively in the areas of criminal law, clinical education and habeas litigation and is the author of the only legal casebook devoted to the topic of wrongful convictions. Professor Brooks has been recognized several times by the Los Angeles Daily Journal as one of the Top 100 Lawyers in California and, in 2010 and 2012, was awarded the prestigious "Lawyer of the Year" award by California Lawyer Magazine.
We caught up with Justin at the end of the day to ask a few questions about the California Innocence Project, why working in the field of human rights is important to him and a bit of advice for students interested in getting involved.
CAPA WORLD: Tell us briefly what you do at the California Innocence Project.
JUSTIN BROOKS: I founded the California Innocence Project in 1999 with three missions:
1.) to get innocent people out of prison
2.) to train law students to be really excellent lawyers by teaching them while working on real cases and
3.) to reform laws and police procedures so we can lessen the number of wrongful convictions.
My role as director is to teach the law students. I teach a course on wrongful convictions. I supervise cases. I’m day-to-day working on cases for the project as well.
CW: What does the Human Rights Conference at CAPA London mean to you? Why did you decide to come to share your story?
JB: Two things I love most in life are teaching and practicing law. I love teaching my students and I love working on my cases. Being a clinical educator, I’m able to do both. The CAPA Human Rights Conference is amazing for me. I get to come here, get in front of a group of young people, bring some real world experience to them and hopefully get them excited to go off and become human rights activists.
CW: What advice could you offer to students who wish to pursue a career in human rights?
JB: I’d give these students the same advice I give my children and that’s find what you’re passionate about and do it for the rest of your life. If you don’t love what you do, it’s a very long life, and not in a positive way. Students spend a lot of money and a lot of time on their education and there should be a return for that. They shouldn’t go into a job that they like no more than they liked to work at a McDonald's in high school.
I’d advise these students to try out a number of things, do internships, volunteer, educate themselves, figure out who they are and what environment they’ll fit in best and when they figure out what they love to do, keep doing it. If they don’t love what they’re doing, change and do something else because if you don’t have that passion and drive in you, work is not fun.
My work is very hard, but I love it. Every day for the past 25 years, I’ve looked forward to going to work and that’s pretty good.
CW: To you, what is the most important lesson that students could take away from CAPA's Human Rights Conference?
JB: We’ve talked about a lot of different issues with the students and probably they haven’t digested everything we’ve talked about, but I think that when they look at real people like Sunny and Peter (two of the conference speakers who were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated) standing in front of them, they’ll remember that. You don’t always remember facts, but you remember feelings, so I hope they take away the feeling of inspiration towards joining the fight for social justice. It doesn’t even matter so much if I tested them tomorrow and they don’t remember a single thing that we said, but they remember the feeling about what we were talking about. That’s the important thing.
Thank you, Justin!