Governor Grants Clemency to Four California Innocence Project Clients

Governor Newsom’s Outbreak of Mercy 

By Amanda Knox with Christopher Robinson

On March 27, 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom granted clemency to 26 Californians, four of whom were clients of the California Innocence Project (CIP): JoAnn Parks, Suzanne Johnson, Rodney McNeal, and David Jassy. 

These CIP clients are each middle-aged or senior citizens who have spent decades behind bars. JoAnn Parks, 67, has been in prison since 1993 for allegedly starting a fire that killed her three children. The CIP presented evidence in 2015 that discredited the state’s theory of arson. Suzanne Johnson, 75, has spent the last 22 years in prison, convicted of murder in the 1997 death of an infant who accidentally fell out of her high chair. Rodney McNeal, 50, was found guilty in 2007 for the murder of his pregnant wife. The CIP uncovered evidence that another man―also guilty of two other murders―committed the killing. David Jassy, 45, has served 11 years after accidentally hitting a pedestrian with his car following an altercation.

The decision to grant their clemency petitions came shortly after news that COVID-19 had begun to spread throughout the California prison system. Newsom’s office stated that, “In addition to the public safety and justice factors that the governor normally considers when reviewing clemency cases, he also considered the public health impact of each grant, as well as each inmate’s individual health status.”

In the midst of the pandemic, this is a rare outbreak of mercy, and Chris and I reached out to Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project, for his thoughts on Governor Newsom’s decision. 

Amanda Knox

So, four clemencies in one day.

Justin Brooks 

I cried like a baby. I was so overwhelmed with emotion. Some of those cases, I have just been fighting for 15 years, and it’s just, to see the end of the battle was just overwhelming and to have for it to happen really suddenly was crazy.

Amanda Knox

It sounds like it was unexpected.

Justin Brooks  

I’ve been fighting these clemencies for years and years and I’ve constantly been in touch with the governor’s office and giving them all the information and pushing and pushing. It felt shocking, that finally the door that I’ve been pushing on for so many years just suddenly opened.

Amanda Knox  

What is the precedent for four clemencies in one day for an Innocence Project?

Justin Brooks  

I’m not aware of anyone who’s done that. I mean, clemency is a very extraordinary remedy. It goes all the way back to the Queen before the United States, they called it the Queen’s prerogative, and it’s a safety valve. And that’s what I’ve always argued, is, clemency is the perfect vehicle for innocent people in prison because it’s supposed to be a safety valve when the system fails. The problem is, it’s become so politicized and there’s so much backlash in these cases that very few governors are willing to take any risks. So most of the time what you see in the news, you know, “So-and-so governor gave 100 clemencies,” they’re mostly old drug cases where you’re clearing people’s records for people who are out of custody. It’s more extraordinary that you’ll see a clemency in a case where someone’s in custody. And in my case, it was four homicide cases. And that’s really extraordinary that the governor is willing to take that political risk.

Chris Robinson 

Was there any chance of exoneration for these four before the clemency? Or had you kind of given up on that and clemency was the final alternative?

Justin Brooks   

Yeah, we’d pretty much exhausted the habeas remedies of getting an exoneration. The good thing about clemency, though, is there’s still a door open to be exonerated, because what I plan on doing is going back with these cases a few years later and seeking pardons, and you still have the opportunity to do that. 

Amanda Knox 

You mentioned that these clemency requests had been on the books for years. What was the state of them before coronavirus?

Justin Brooks 

For the last eight years, I’ve been saying, you know, I’ve been sending more documents. I’ve been doing everything they asked. I’ve been begging them to go meet with my clients. I’ve been telling them I’ll bring witnesses to Sacramento. It’s just been constantly banging my head against the door, trying to get movement. And, you know, this is the one silver lining maybe in this, this virus, is that the state got in a situation where they realize that the biggest problem in our state is going to be the correctional population, because this virus is going to go like wildfire through the prisons and jails. And they’re trying to get as many people out, but they’re trying to get everyone out who’s in pre trial detention, and get everyone out who’s got misdemeanor charges, and these are four homicide cases. But fortunately, Gavin Newsom was willing to take a chance on these cases. And, and it’s a big chance because, if you look back in history, the reason that Mike Dukakis didn’t become president of the United States was a guy named Willie Horton. And George Bush the First figured it out, that the best way to beat Mike Dukakis was to say he was soft on crime. And they used Willie Horton, who was an inmate who had been released in Massachusetts and had gone on to commit crimes. And they said, “Look, Mike Dukakis is soft on crime. He’s letting murderers out of prison.” And in the last 35 years, every politician has learned that lesson. Don’t take chances with criminal justice. 

Chris Robinson 

It’s an infamous ad. Right? I mean, it’s one of the most famous political ads.

Justin Brooks 

That fear is a very powerful political tool. So, I’ve been really impressed by Governor Newsom. I mean, he, as soon as he got in office, he suspended the death penalty, which is a big move. And then to do this, you know. And I just, but I can’t, I mean, I know you guys understand that feeling, but it’s just, it is, it’s so overwhelming. You fight and fight and fight and fight and fight and it’s almost like you can’t believe you’ve got to the end of it. And being able to call the family members and give them the news is just the most joyful experience that you can have. It was, they were screaming and crying. One of my clients, Susan Johnson, if people could see her, they would really see the failings of our correctional system. We have definitive proof that she’s innocent. And every time I go visit her, she’s in her mid-70s, she just sits there knitting, and this woman, just is zero zero harm to society. And one of the things she says to me is she cares more about being able to visit with her grandchildren than anything else. But because she’s in prison for the death of the child, they won’t even let her visit with her own grandchildren. And it’s just so heartbreaking and ridiculous to see her locked up in this high security prison, and taxpayers spending all this money. And we’ve just turned some of these facilities into very expensive senior citizen housing. And her family are so sweet and so supportive, that members of her family actually moved to this little town in the middle of California where the prison is just to be close to her and going and seeing her constantly and it’s just you know, it’s heartbreaking when you see that impact on these families.

Amanda Knox  

Have you been able to speak with them since the decision? And how are they doing now?

Justin Brooks 

Suzanne Johnson, she’s going to get out this week. I haven’t had a chance to be able to talk directly with her yet, but I’ve had a lot of messages back and forth between her family. David Jassy is actually a Swedish citizen, and so we’re going through the Swedish Embassy and trying to get him out of the country so he doesn’t go into ICE custody and end up in a really bad situation. And with the other two clients, what the governor did is he sent them to the board to do an expedited review of their cases. And the governor has been doing that to make sure that they have an exit plan and support on the outside. Normally I think it’s actually not a bad idea, but in this case, it’s kind of unfortunate because it’s slowing down the process of getting them out. And we’re really in exigent circumstances here, in terms of the virus.

Amanda Knox  

How many more clients do you have that are awaiting similar decisions?

Justin Brooks  

I’ve got two in-custody clients. I think what the governor did is put to the backburner some other petitions I’ve put in for pardons of clients that have already been released. Right now the focus is getting people out.

Amanda Knox  

Any habeas corpus petitions that are newly on the docket as an attempt to reduce the prison population?

Justin Brooks

Not that I’m currently pursuing, but California has ordered the release of 3500 inmates who all are short termers. They said anyone who had under 60 days left is going to be immediately released. And obviously, that’s the thing to do. And they should go beyond 60 days. I mean, if someone’s in there, let’s say they have a year left on their sentence, like, why would you put them in a deadly situation when they’ve got that kind of time left on their sentence? 

Amanda Knox

Are we seeing any nonviolent offenders being given the opportunity to serve a year sentence or a three year sentence with, like, electronic monitors at home?

Justin Brooks 

I haven’t heard of them doing that, but that’s absolutely what should be happening. 

Chris Robinson 

Every business and school is rushing to figure out how to do remote learning and remote meetings. You’d think we’d be rushing to figure out how to have remote detention, if detention is still necessary.

Justin Brooks  

Yeah, because it’s all about density. Right? I mean, that’s what we’re trying to do is decrease density everywhere we can, so people can be separate. And you know, I don’t have to tell you, Amanda, how difficult in a prison it is to stay separate from people. 

Chris Robinson 

Have you thought forward about in the future when the pandemic is passed, whether or not there’s going to be a lasting legacy of the sorts of decisions that are being made now? 

Justin Brooks   

That’s a great question. I hope what happens is they see that nothing bad came from letting these people out of prison. And I think they’d be more willing to take more chances that way. 

Chris Robinson

You know what you need? You need data over the next, you know, five years of all the people that were given early releases of different forms due to the corona panic. Look at the data and see how many of them reoffended. See how many of them caused problems and how versus becoming productive members of society. 

Justin Brooks

That’s actually a terrific idea. The data is always the most important thing. And I think if we could prove that, it could move it. I’m lucky. I mean, I feel very lucky today to be in California where we have a governor who is open to that, but that’s certainly not the norm across the country. 

Amanda Knox 

Do you know if other Innocence Projects are seeing a similar rise in clemency grants and prison releases for their clients?

Justin Brooks

I haven’t seen people posting that they’ve been very successful at accomplishing that. I think the issue is they have so many other things they’re thinking about. But hopefully you can get their attention on these cases. That’s the hard thing. It’s getting people’s attention. And getting politicians to focus on your issue is always the challenge.

Amanda Knox

What do these moves to reduce the prison population reveal about the necessity of confining people in the first place?

Justin Brooks  

Those of us who’ve been studying it for decades know that the reason our prisons are filled is mostly political. It’s not about, that there is this heavy impact in improving our society by filling up our prisons. We know that it’s had a devastating impact on society in terms of families left alone, who then end up on welfare, children who don’t have their parents who end up in the system themselves. We know that economics is what drives crime, not how many people you have locked up in prison. So the hope is that enough citizens can become aware of that, that they’re no longer frightened into supporting tough-on-crime policies, and that we can start taking some of the power away from the whole prison industry. That’s a multi-billion dollar industry built on our fears. So I think as these numbers continue to go down, if people don’t see that all of a sudden, you know, this turns into a scene out of Batman.

Chris Robinson 

Arkham Asylum doors open.

Justin Brooks

Exactly.

Chris Robinson

I’m curious, Justin, about on a personal sort of ego note. You dedicate your life to this stuff. I imagine it’s got to be a little bit like struggling to push a boulder up a hill for decades and you’re getting so close, and then a big gust of wind comes along and pushes it the rest of the way for you. How does that feel?

Justin Brooks

Every one of these cases, I just said this to my wife the other night, it just, I don’t realize until it happens the weight I’d been carrying with individual cases. It feels like a brick coming off my chest. And it’s one after the other. And that’s what it feels like. It’s like when we lose it’s devastating and when we win it’s exhilarating. So yeah, these are just, these are the weeks, this is what I live for. What I absolutely live for are these moments in time.