The Innocence Project wants to help wrongly accused

Uriah Courtney still struggles

Justin Brooks and Alissa Bjerkhoel
  • Justin Brooks and Alissa Bjerkhoel
  • Image by Andy Boyd

The California Institution for Women in Chino is dusty and dilapidated. It looks like an abandoned high school outfitted with razor-wire-topped fencing and look-out towers with armed guards.

At 8:00 a.m. on an overcast Saturday morning, a group of visitors awaits entry into the prison. I am wearing a borrowed sports bra because underwire is not permitted inside. It could be used as a shiv or fashioned into a tiny saw or some other unfathomable DIY weapon whose tutorial cannot be found on Pinterest.

I am not alone; another visitor has made an error. Upon noticing the mistake, Darlene Long, who visits her daughter weekly and is an expert on visitation rules, tells the curly-haired middle-aged woman that she will have to unzip her sweatshirt before being allowed inside the jail.

“That’s going to be a problem — I am not wearing anything underneath this. You are going to get a show today,” is the woman’s response which elicits a roar of laughter.

Another woman offers the sweatshirted lady a T-shirt from her car. It is evident in their familiar greetings that many of those gathered today cross paths regularly at the prison.

Roger Long tells me that Joe Pesci is often among this group of Saturday morning regulars.

“Nice guy,” Long says of the celebrity, before lowering his voice to add, “sometimes we see the girls from the Manson family inside. They get visitors from time to time. I guess I should say ‘women,’ not ‘girls.’ They committed those crimes a long time ago.”

A little after 8:30 a.m. a prison guard opens the door to the waiting room. We file in. The smell of urine fills the air.

A toddler in a frilly dress weaves in and out of the rows of waiting-room chairs before an older man hisses at her to sit still.

Roger and Darlene Long, defense lawyer Alissa Bjerkhoel, and I are among the first to be frisked and ushered through metal detectors. Minutes later we are led through heavy doors and inside what looks like a school cafeteria. Row upon row of Formica lunchroom tables line the room. A sea-themed mural decorates a dingy aquamarine wall.

Kimberly Long, before her incarceration

Kimberly Long, before her incarceration

Photo courtesy of Darlene Long

Even in her prison blues, 39-year-old Kimberly Long is stunning. Her hair is long and strawberry-blond. She exudes the kind of warmth reserved for peppy talk-show hosts, not a woman serving 15 to life for second-degree murder. Long divvies out hugs to her parents, Bjerkhoel, and lastly, to me.

While Roger and Darlene beeline it to the vending machines, Bjerkhoel and I follow Long outside to a patio with a view of the parking lot. The three of us sit at a round table. For the next two hours we talk about Kimberly’s case, how she is managing behind bars, and the negative label she will no doubt receive after being featured on an upcoming episode of Snapped, a television crime series depicting women convicted of murdering their husbands or boyfriends. Meanwhile, Long’s doting parents supply us with vending-machine goodies — cookies, microwave pizza, and chips. Kimberly gleefully devours everything.

The Manson girls are nowhere to be seen. Claudia Haro, Joe Pesci’s ex-wife, sits two tables away. Even behind bars she has managed to maintain bleach-blond hair, and perfectly plucked eyebrows.

I ask Kimberly what it’s like sharing a living space with notorious criminals. “They’re just people,” she says with a shrug.

Kimberly’s ordeal began in the early morning hours of October 5, 2003, upon discovering her boyfriend’s lifeless, bludgeoned body in the living room of the home they shared.

Despite passing a polygraph test, circumstantial evidence against her, and a lengthy list of other viable suspects, Long was convicted of Oswaldo Conde’s murder. Kimberly was taken into custody in 2009. She has remained in prison ever since.

Lawyers at the San Diego–based California Innocence Project have reversed the convictions of 15 prisoners. They believe Kimberly was wrongly convicted. They have taken on her case in an attempt to exonerate her.

California is not a hippie place

“California has a stereotype of being this hippie-granola-crunchy place. It’s really not. We have the largest death row in the United States with 743 death-row inmates. We have the most severe sentencing structure with three strikes. It’s the belly of the beast,” Justin Brooks, director and founder of the California Innocence Project, tells me while giving me a tour of the organization’s facility.

California Western School of Law

350 Cedar Street, Downtown San Diego

The group is located in a cramped corner on the first floor of downtown’s California Western School of Law. It is bustling with interns. In the intake room, where over 2000 cases a year are reviewed, a group of High Tech High students get to work sifting through the day’s mail. Most letters are written by inmates or their family members pleading innocence and begging the Innocence Project to take on their cases.

Brooks is dressed in cargo shorts and T-shirt. His accent is one part East Coast and two parts California surfer, making him sound years younger. Despite his boyish mannerisms, his gray hair gives away his 48 years. Large canvas photos decorate the hallway showcasing the smiling faces of all 15 clients that the organization has freed. Brooks pauses before every picture, giving a lengthy overview of each individual case.

Brooks founded the California Innocence Project in 1999. While working as a professor of criminal justice in Michigan, he came across an article in a local paper about a 21-year-old woman named Marilyn Mulero. She was on death row in Chicago.

“The article said she was sentenced to death on a plea bargain!” Brooks explains, pausing to make an impression. “I thought, How can anyone be sentenced to death on plea bargain?!”

Feeling that a severe injustice had been done, Brooks traveled to Chicago to visit Mulero in prison. “I found out that she had had a great public defender assigned to her; a woman who had done tons of homicide cases. But she fired this woman because her friends told her to hire a guy who had a little office in the neighborhood. He didn’t know what he was doing and he pled her straight up to double homicide.”

Back in Michigan, Brooks asked students from one of his criminal law classes if any of them wanted to help prove Mulero’s innocence.

“Four brave, stupid souls raised their hands. We spent the next few years getting her death sentence reversed, investigating her case, finding tons of evidence that showed she is innocent. We got her off of death row. The sad part of the story is, 20 years later, I am still working on her case because I have never been able to get her plea withdrawn.”

Meeting Mulero changed the trajectory of Brooks’s life. “One night, after visiting Mulero, I was sitting in my car on a freezing Chicago evening and I decided this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I quit my job. California has the largest prison system in the world, so I thought this would be a great place to start. The California Western School of Law had a small criminal defense institute that had a little bit of budget for what I wanted to do. They hired me on as director and I turned it into the California Innocence Project.

Among Brooks’s main agendas, apart from exonerating the wrongly accused and training capable lawyers, is shedding light on the death penalty. He explains, “A government report that came out last year estimated that 4 percent of people on death row are innocent. That is a lot of people. Each one is a human being that is going to be executed. I am 100 percent against the death penalty. There is something fundamentally immoral about a system that makes as many mistakes as ours does to have the death penalty. I think we are very close to getting rid of it in California. We were so close in the last election. I believe that [the Innocent Project] is part of changing the public’s perception on the death penalty. Every time the public sees an innocent person being walked off of death row they realize that our system is flawed.”

In 2012, California voters were given the opportunity to pass Proposition 34, which would have replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment. Proposition 34 was narrowly defeated with 52 percent voting against it.

When it comes to capital punishment, California has a rich history. State-sanctioned executions began in 1851. In those days, executions were usually done via hangings. That method was replaced in popularity with lethal gas nearly a hundred years later. Due to the inhumane nature of death by lethal gas, only four states (California, Missouri, Arizona, and Wyoming) continue its use. Currently, five methods of execution are used in the United States: electrocution, firing squad, hanging, lethal gas, and lethal injection. From 1976 to June 18, 2015, there were 1411 executions in the U.S. Of those, 1236 were performed by lethal injection, 158 by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, 3 by hanging, and 3 by firing squad.

The California Innocence Project team

The California Innocence Project team

Only 19 states do not have the death penalty. Meanwhile, Brooks sees to it that the young law students interning with the California Innocence Project don’t make the same error Mulero’s lawyer did when he pled his client up to the death penalty. The California Innocence Project’s intern program is based upon the medical school model. Young law students get extensive hands-on experience before going out and practicing law on their own.

The day of my visit, Brooks is hosting the group’s annual information seminar for new students interested in becoming interns. In a high-ceilinged auditorium, 50 or so anxious law students await the presentation. The room falls to a hush when Brooks takes the microphone.

“Every year we take 12 to 14 students into our program. Each law student is assigned their own caseload, anywhere from 7 to 10 cases. That is a very heavy burden. Those cases represent an innocent person who is in prison. If you don’t work on those cases, that person is not getting out. Most of our clients will die in prison if we lose their cases. We are their last resort.”

Brooks looks around the room letting the heaviness of his words sink in before addressing the crowd to add, “Today, the best way to start is for you to hear from one of our exonerees. Please welcome Uriah Courtney.”

By the time Courtney finishes telling his story, members of the crowd are weeping.

Uriah Courtney still struggles

Courtney politely sprinkles his sentences with “please” and “thank you” and “ma’am” and “sir.” His brown hair matches his brown eyes. He is small of stature and soft-spoken. Two years ago he was serving a life sentence at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego for a crime he did not commit.

Newspaper clippings from past Innocence Project cases

Newspaper clippings from past Innocence Project cases

In 2004, a Lemon Grove teenager was walking home when she was raped on a busy street. A witness came forward, a man who did not offer assistance at the time of the attack because he believed it was a domestic altercation taking place between a young couple. He gave a description to the police of the man. The victim told law enforcement that earlier in the day a man in a truck with a camper lid had ogled her. She thought that the driver of the vehicle might be the same man who raped her. The police took down a description of the truck. Weeks later, a vehicle matching the description was spotted parked in the driveway of a Lemon Grove home. It was a work vehicle belonging to Courtney’s stepfather, who was also his boss. The vehicle in question was parked in front of the home of a man Courtney worked with.

“When they made the connection with the truck, the police got photos of my stepdad and my coworker. They showed those to the victim. She said neither of them attacked her. They dug a little deeper and found out that my name was connected to my mom and stepdad’s address. Because I had been arrested before, they used my booking photo and put together a six-pack line up. They showed it to the victim and she picked out three guys from the photos and said I looked the most similar.”

As it happened, Courtney was on the run. He had been sentenced to work furlough and failed a probation-mandated drug test. He skipped town and headed to Texas to spend time with his son. Texas police tracked down Courtney on February 8, 2005, and arrested him. They extradited him back to San Diego. Courtney spent two months in a holding cell. When he was summoned for his court hearing, he was under the impression that he was there for running out on work furlough. He had no idea how serious the charges were against him.

“At the hearing, they started reading my charges off: kidnapping, rape, robbery. My knees felt like they were about to buckle. I was blown away and in shock. My crusty, old, court-appointed lawyer didn’t even know about the charges. I blurted out, ‘That’s not me! I didn’t do this!’ I thought certainly this is just a mistake. They will get it straightened out.”

Courtney’s lawyer assured him that he would straighten everything out. There was no cause for worry. Courtney went back to his cell. Days dragged out to weeks and weeks to months.

“All the way up to my trial I held out hope that the detective or somebody was going to come in and say, ‘Sorry, Mr. Courtney, this has all been a big mistake.’”

That did not happen, not for another eight years.

“My preliminary hearing was the first time the victim saw me in person. The district attorney asked, ‘Do you see the man that attacked you sitting in the courtroom?’ I am sitting there in my blue jailhouse uniform next to my defense attorney. Of course she is going to say it was me. Who else is she going to pick? It was horrible. I felt sorry for her because she suffered terribly, but at the same time I was thinking, Look at me! I am not the guy that attacked you! I just wanted her to look at me but she wouldn’t. That is when I knew I was in serious trouble and the likelihood of them thinking this was all a mistake was slim.”

Courtney’s trial lasted three weeks. When summoned to the deliberation room, the jury came back with a verdict immediately. Courtney was asked to stand as the foreman read the verdict.

“It was a slow-motion moment. Everything stopped except for the jury foreman’s voice. I will never forget when they came down with the guilty verdict for the rape charge. There was a grief-stricken cry of emotion behind me. I knew it was coming from my mother. It was horrible.”

Courtney’s parents were supportive. They knew their son was wrongfully convicted. They kept substantial organized files on his case. Courtney’s step-dad contacted the Innocence Project numerous times, hoping that the group would help exonerate Courtney. The victim’s clothing was still in the sheriff’s storage locker and had yet to undergo extensive DNA testing. After reviewing Courtney’s case, the Innocence Project decided that there was strong evidence he was innocent. They took on his case.

Alissa Bjerkhoel had been working as an attorney for the project for a year when she was assigned Courtney’s case.

“Uriah filed a case for DNA testing on his own but it was denied because he didn’t comply with the procedural requirements. We came on the case and filed a new motion for DNA testing,” explains Bjerkhoel.

The DA’s office agreed to test for DNA on the victim’s clothing. In the meantime, Courtney sat in jail for an additional year while the Innocence Project and the D.A.’s office negotiated the details of testing the evidence.

Says Courtney, “Before they tested the DNA, they told me, ‘Look, if it comes back with male DNA it may not matter because it’s just male DNA on her clothes. It could belong to anyone. Obviously if they found mine on it that would mean I committed the crime. Not only was my DNA excluded, they were able to identify who the DNA belonged to. It belonged to a guy that lived in the area of the attack. He had a previous sexual assault. When they told me that, I knew I was a free man.”

The D.A.’s office agreed to reverse the conviction. A few months later, Courtney walked out of prison. It has not been easy. After two years of freedom, Courtney still struggles.

“I am paranoid. It’s hard to trust people. I used to not want to be around women at all. When I would go out at night or if I was somewhere where there weren’t many people around and I happened to cross paths with a female, it made me extremely uncomfortable. I am afraid to date. In order to start a relationship you have talk about your history. It’s really, really, difficult. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone. I am not young anymore.”

The idea that there are people out there who still believe Courtney is guilty haunts him.

“As far as I know, the jurors that sent me away don’t know I was exonerated. I think they should know. It should be an eye-opener. I hope that the guy that testified against me, the witness that saw the attack happen but didn’t help — I think he should know that I was wrongly convicted. He got some kind of citizen award! I think he should know.”

Despite matching the DNA evidence to a man with a prior sexual assault charge, the D.A.’s office has not reopened the case. The victim still believes Courtney is guilty. It is difficult to convince a jury to prosecute someone that the victim believes is innocent.

“My image is stamped into her memory. She saw me more than she saw her attacker. She has convinced herself that I am the one who did this to her. It really bothers me, but I don’t hold it against her. I have read case studies and many other victims wrongly identify their attackers.”

Wrongful conviction can happen to anyone

Three hundred thirty post-conviction DNA exonerations have occurred in the United States. Seventy percent of their convictions stemmed from eyewitness misidentification. It is the leading cause of wrongful conviction.

“My job has made me extremely aware that a wrongful conviction can happen to anyone,” says Bjerkhoel. “I realize now, after dealing with criminal law, how random crime is. So many people are at the wrong place at the wrong time. Not only victims of crimes, but the people that are wrongly convicted.” Bjerkhoel is riding shotgun in my car as we drive northbound on the 15 to visit Kimberly Long.

Photos of successful exonerations line the hallways of the California Innocence Project office.

Photos of successful exonerations line the hallways of the California Innocence Project office.

During our two-hour car ride there is barely a pause in conversation while she discusses her current and prior cases. Bjerkhoel was hired on as an attorney with the California Innocence Project in 2008 after interning for the program.

“I really lucked out. After I graduated law school, [the Innocence Project] got a grant to pay a lawyer. I think it was $40,000 a year. So, yeah, I became a $40,000-a-year lawyer.” Bjerkhoel says with a chuckle before adding, “I make more now, not by much. I make the starting salary of a public defender, and I have been out practicing for eight years.”

When we drive past Corona Lake, its shore drastically receded from the drought, Bjerkhoel motions out the window.

“One of my clients was convicted of a crime that occurred there.”

In 1998, the body of a Terry Cheek was found near the bank of Corona Lake. She was strangled to death. After three jury trials, Horace Roberts was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life for Cheek’s death. So far, Roberts has served 17 years of his sentence.

“He was having an affair with the victim,” Bjerkhoel explains, “he was convicted of the crime largely based upon a wristwatch found at the scene near her body.”

The prosecution stated during closing arguments in Roberts’s case, “What is more compelling than [Horace Roberts’s] watch that’s found next to the murdered woman’s body? There’s nothing more compelling than that.”

Fifteen years later, the California Innocence Project DNA-tested the watch. DNA evidence showed the watch belonged to one of Cheek’s family members — a person who had motive to kill her.

“It wasn’t even his watch!” Bjerkhoel says in hopeless exasperation. Her voice rises and drops ranging in sadness to frustration as she continues ranting on Roberts’s behalf.

Not long after driving past the location of Terry Cheek’s murder we see Tom’s Farm. The tourist attraction visible from the highway was one of the locations Kimberly Long, Oswaldo Conde, and Jeff Dills drank at on October 4th, prior to Conde’s murder. Upon noticing the establishment, Bjerkhoel lets out a heavy sigh and breathlessly explains, “I need some serious help on Kimberly’s case. There are so many possible suspects and bizarre facets to her case. I am chasing down leads all the time that don’t pan out. We have a cigarette butt that was found at the scene in an incense tray. The victim didn’t smoke it and our girl didn’t smoke it. DNA on it came back as unknown Hispanic male. Whose could it be? Conde’s ex-girlfriend happens to have these Hispanic male best friends who are scary as shit and [Conde] had a restraining order against her at the time of his death.”

It sounds like a movie. Adding another element of a Hollywood script, Bjerkhoel explains that Conde’s ex-girlfriend has a blog dedicated to Conde’s murder. Over 17,000 comments are posted on the website, some from the family and friends of both the victim and the accused, others from complete strangers.

“I read through all the comments trying to get information. One guy posted a comment saying that the murder was an NLR (Nazi Low Rider) hit, claiming [Conde] owed them money. Another person says the murder weapon is buried in a nearby Indian graveyard. We thought about going there; but where do we even start? Which end of the graveyard? I have no idea. I need a serious team of, like, 20 investigators to figure this all out. I believe someone out there knows what happened and might be willing to talk.”

Kimberly Long’s first trial resulted in a hung jury. Nine of the twelve jurors believed she was innocent. A second jury convicted Long of Conde’s murder based on a time discrepancy and the fact that hours before his murder, Conde and Long had gotten into a heated argument. Long was intoxicated during the altercation. She stormed out of the house, leaving with Jeff Dills.

When questioned by police, Long told officers she returned home at 2:00 a.m. and called police immediately upon discovering the body. Jeff Dills, on the other hand, claimed he dropped Long off at 1:30 a.m. Dills could not be questioned further on the time line. Shortly after talking to law enforcement, he died in a motorcycle accident. If Long returned home when Dill said she did, jurors believed she could have performed the murder and discarded her clothing prior to the arrival of investigators. Yet, when officers entered the home, blood dripped off of the living room walls in a 360-degree radius. Not a single drop of blood was found on Long. A check of all the faucets inside and outside the home were dry, indicated that a clean-up did not occur. Also, Long’s clothing when police arrived matched descriptions of what she was wearing earlier in the evening while bar-hopping.

“The prosecution’s theory was that Kim killed [Conde] because he wasn’t paying rent. From a female prospective, I am not going to kill a guy after six months simply because he is not paying the rent. That doesn’t even make any sense!” Bjerkhoel says in disgust, her voice thick with emotion.

Bjerkhoel explains that she tries her best not to get worked up over her cases but it is evident she can’t help it. The mere mention of Courtney, one of the first of Bjerkhoel’s clients to be exonerated, brings tears to her eyes. It is not that Bjerkhoel is weak or overly sentimental, it’s the awareness that her clients’ freedom hinges largely on her ability to prove their innocence. This fact has become a burden in Bjerkhoel’s life.

“The first time I lost a case I really cared about it; I couldn’t even function. I was so devastated for my client that I literally couldn’t get out of bed,” Bjerkhoel admits. “About two years ago, I started having health problems. I would be driving to work and I would black out. I started having panic attacks. I got all these tests done, went to a therapist, got acupuncture only to realize that it was stress-related. I have mostly gotten that under control. I try not to get as emotionally involved in my cases as I used to. It’s hard.”

Roger Long fights for his daughter’s freedom

Roger Long fights for his daughter’s freedom

Photo courtesy of Darlene Long

Bjerkhoel’s emotional involvement is evident when 30 minutes into our visit with Kimberly Long she cries after Roger and Darlene praise her for all her hard work.

“What you are doing for our family is amazing,” Darlene tells Bjerkhoel, giving her shoulder an affectionate squeeze. When the couple describes the vacation they are planning for their daughter up the coast on Highway 1 to celebrate her release from prison, Bjerkhoel looks exhausted.

After exiting the prison and walking through the parking lot to the car, I ask Bjerkhoel what she thinks about the Longs’ vacation plans.

“I don’t think they realize how much time it is going to take to prove Kimberly’s innocence. I don’t say that, though. I want them to remain optimistic.”

The statement is followed by a somber silence before Bjerkhoel breaks the ice by asking, “So, you think Kimberly is innocent, right?”

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"The California Institution for Women in Chino is dusty and dilapidated. It looks like an abandoned high school outfitted with razor-wire-topped fencing and look-out towers with armed guards."

It's a prison, not a spa or resort.

I think it's obvious she was trying to give us a visual of what she saw, not complain that it wasn't nice enough.

“California has a stereotype of being this hippie-granola-crunchy place. It’s really not. We have the largest death row in the United States with 743 death-row inmates. We have the most severe sentencing structure with three strikes. It’s the belly of the beast,”

California has, by far, the biggest population in the nation. Over 10% of the nation's population lives here. 700-someodd death row denizens is nothing, and there are so many because we won't execute their sentences!

As for "the most severe sentencing structure", BS! Our dauntless state Legislators and weepy, hand-wringing voters are constantly reducing the effectiveness of our penal system. We DON'T have a real Three Strikes system any more... we let all sorts of violent predators go all the time because what they were caught for this time wasn't quite bad enough.

I'm tired of this silly, bleating nonsense about how we're just too rough on criminals. We aren't. We aren't nearly tough enough. repeat felons should be in prison for life. They should be making license plates or doing other hard labor. Instead, we weep over them, and try to "understand" them, and "show compassion", and cry about their poor childhoods, and give them endless second chances. It's no wonder why there are so many criminals... crime pays in this state!

@jnojr: Indeed. However, there is no excuse for the abuse of law that puts innocent people in prison, nor executing them. Ambrose Bierce said "The law is where you go in as a pig and come out as a sausage."

Just pray that it never happens to you, my friend. And no matter how law-abiding you are, it COULD happen to you, or your wife/husband, daughter/son, mother/father, etc.

Having worked in the court system for 32 years, I have seen things that would make you weep. Pray you're never invited as a defendant - unless you have actually done the deed.

Meanwhile the UC and CSU Boards pass a "law" saying that those accused of sexual assault are, in fact, guilty until proven innocent.

Kimberly doesn't belong in prison. I have no idea what that second jury was thinking, or I should say not thinking. And even before that, they were insane to even bring charges against her in the first place! There was NO blood on her or her clothes, and yes she was found still dressed in the clothes witnesses had seen her dressed in when she'd been out earlier. When Kimberly had been given a polygraph test, she needed a +6 to pass, and she got a plus 12 or 16 something like that. She was SO far from being deceptive ! She had told the truth! Unfortunately, there had been someone in Ozzy's life who didn't make out so well on their polygraph test. That person was Ozzy's ex-girlfriend. The same woman Ozzy found himself having to take a restraining order out against ! When the ex-girlfriend was questioned by police, she even went as far as to say she hated Ozzy being with Kimberly. She hated Kimberly. She was extreme! And the circle she hung in were less then desirable also. She admitted to being angry over the fact that Ozzy wanted to marry Kimberly. There were more reasons to look at this woman as a suspect for Ozzy's murder than to ever look at or suspect Kimberly. Even if there had been a discrepancy in the time of what time Kimberly got home, she said about 2:00 a.m. and Jeff Dills said 1:30 a.m. The coroner's report places Ozzy's time of death at 12:30 a.m. ! Ozzy had been attacked and killed long before Kimberly ever got home no matter which time you go by. They NEED to go back and look at that insane ex-girlfriend all over again, who didn't even pass her polygraph test. And her circle of undesirable cohorts. Justice has not been served in Ozzy's death, the real murderer is not sitting behind bars, and too many senseless years of freedom have already been taken from an innocent woman!

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